The Japanese language of flowers (hanakotoba) might not be in much use anymore, but flowers are still celebrated, even if their secret meanings are mostly lost. With a temperate climate and four seasons, the archipelago’s flora is diverse and thriving, which leads to an array of opportunities for blossom-lovers. Whilst the cherry variety is the most famous of all the Japanese flowers, they are not the only one. There are flowers for each time of the year and some are even edible!
Eating flowers isn’t a new trend. The ancient Chinese, Greek and Romans all enjoyed eating blossoms, so there are thousands of years of culinary history to mine when it comes to eating beautiful petals. In Japan, the flowers and buds are part of the culinary experience: from the Imperial Seal to sakura, ume to angelica buds, what will the seasons bring to your plates?
Cheery blossoms are the National Flower and a symbol of renewal and hope. There is a “cherry-blossom opening front tracked by Japan’s meteorological agency,” the sakura zensen, which “shows where sakura has started flourishing around the nation, and is reported every day on the news,” reports Japan Times. There is an app to track the blooming and to pick the best hanami spot and the world seems to go cherry-mad every spring. When it comes to eating the stuff, leaves and flowers are preserved in salt and used as “edible wrappers for sakura-mochi, a traditional sweet (wagashi) that is only available in early to mid spring.” They “usually consist of soft mochi or gyūhi (pounded rice cake) filled with koshian (smooth, sweet adzuki bean paste), with a sakura leaf or two wrapped around the whole thing.”
Other traditional dishes include sakura-manjū (cherry buns) that comes with a flower on top and “sakura gohan, rice cooked with a few preserved blossoms and dashi stock.” The pale pink tea, saura-yu, is made with the flowers and hailed as an alternative to green tea.
Everything can be sakura-flavoured: salts, candies, gums, cupcakes, ice cream, jellies, honey, wine, even lattes! Alternatively, every bar and hotel in Japan comes up with a sakura cocktail in spring, from liqueur to syrup, sakura is added to champagne, mojitos… No excuses, really, not to try it in some form or another.
Summer: Angelica buds
Japan Times notes that the angelica buds are referred to as “king of sansai.” The delicacy is at the top of the edible wild plant’s pyramid and can be used in soups and tempura. The tree name is Taranoki and the shoots are Taranome. Found in fields and mountains all over Japan, the buds are prized and their location kept secret by foragers. Harvested young, the buds of the wild variety are picked in the early summer. Enjoyed fried, this is a delicacy you might be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world.
This bright yellow flower is the Imperial Seal of Japan and is called kiku. It’s the object of festivals across Japan and is on display all year round on the Japanese passport and the ¥50 coin. Japan Times reports “a legend about longevity, the story of a town whose residents all lived to over 100 years old, where the water came from a mountain spring surrounded by chrysanthemums.”
The Japanese also like growing it in unusual shapes, like bonsai. So whilst it is a seasonal flower like the cherry blossoms, it isn’t so much a celebration of its natural form but of the labour of the people who spend months coaxing chrysanthemum into their preferred shapes. And unlike bonsai, it is all over at the end of the season.
The ephemeral nature of chrysanthemum means you can only taste it during autumn. The petals are simmered, blanched or pickled and added to a range of dishes such as stir-fries, soups and salads. Cook in Japan also tells us that: “The blossoms can be boiled to make an aromatic, herbal drink known as ‘kiku-cha’ (chrysanthemum tea). The whole flower is used to garnish sashimi and sushi dishes and can also be made into tempura.” Kiku is served alongside soy and wasabi and can be eaten raw!
Winter: Plum Blossoms
Brought back to Japan by Kenzuishi, the Japanese official diplomatic delegations sent to China during the Sui dynasty, ume is described as the Japanese plum or apricot.
Blooming in late winter, usually February or March, the blossoms announce the coming of spring. “Associated with good fortune, plum blossoms, plums, and the trees themselves are thought to ward off evil, so you will often find them planted around shrines, temples, or other spiritual areas,” explains Japan Travel Magazine Matcha.
Celebrated by festivals called ume matsuri, ume, which is the fruit of the Japanese plum tree, is enjoyed processed in various ways. The samurai even ate them to get an energy boost! Japan Guide reports that the most popular ways to eat ume are: “the umeboshi, a sour, pickled plum, which is usually enjoyed with cooked rice,” and “umeshu, a sweet alcoholic beverage made of plums.”
The blossoms, which look a lot like sakura, are added to ume dishes, cocktails and yes, this garnish is edible.
Creating a beautiful plate full of flavourful flower is simple when following the seasons. Whilst you can’t eat all blossoms, chrysanthemum, ume, sakura or angelica buds are sure to brighten the dullest of day. Violet, shiso, Japanese honeysuckle, azami, tampopo… the list of edible blooms goes on. Some are sansai, some are used as garnish, they might be fried, distilled or boiled; they all look wonderful and are sure to delight your taste buds.