Shun and the seasons
[旬 | 季節の物]
Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring: the four seasons are important aspects in Japanese culture. They are strongly tied not only with weather and nature, but also with health and important calendar events. The school period starts with the cherry blossoms and the cold weather always welcome the New Year’s holidays.
In Japanese cuisine, these seasons are highly celebrated through seasonal recipes and ingredients, decoration and different themes.
In Japanese language, we have some interesting vocabulary to describe some season-related ideas. Regarding poetry, 風物詩, fuubutsushi, “means things which reminds one of a particular season”. You might hear this word to describe imagery that people associate with specific seasons.
For instance, fireworks, cicadas, watermelon and shaved ice, these are all typical elements of a classic Japanese Summer. Meanwhile, snow, kotatsu and nabe are strongly associated with Japanese Winter. Cherry blossoms and hanami remind people of Spring. Red dragonflies and colorful Fall leaves are big staples of Autumn. You can see these groups of iconic elements appear on advertisement, children’s drawings, stationery…
Another word that is relevant to today’s talk is 季節物 (kisetsumono): seasonable goods. The words 期間限定 (kikan gentei) – limited time offer – and 季節限定 (kisetsu gentei) – seasonal only – are often used to promote all kind of products in the market. Clothing, drinks, snacks, events…
(Experiencing the culture season-limited products is fun, but yeah, sometimes saying goodbye is tough! Well, that’s how nature works. Brevity and fleetingness… Don’t be sad, the following season might be exciting too. Also, next year you might see your favorite kisetsu gentei back to the shelves… Perhaps even something even more interesting and delightful, who knows?)
How food and cooking is related to all of these things?
During the scalding Summer, one can expect cold, refreshing dishes served on icy blue pottery. Japanese Summer can be very harsh on people; such thoughtful setup relieves the guests from the stressful high heat. Similarly, during the colorful Spring, one can expect a lot of freshly harvested sansai ( 山菜 – mountain vegetables), served on a very colorful plate. It’s time to celebrate the blooming of beautiful flowers!
The single kanji for Shun [旬] is a word that represents what ingredients are the best of each season, the prime from the lands and the seas. An ingredient that is going through its Shun period means that it is either available only during that season or that it tastes much better during that period.
Shun and the Japanese cuisine
Certain recipes are specially devised to be made during limited weeks only. Why? Because some ingredients only appear during a particular period of time.
For example, Japanese plums‘ Shun season happens only at the beginning of Summer!…
One famous case is takenoko, bamboo shoots, which are very different if harvested during the beginning of the Spring. That’s the period when the snow from the mountains have just melted. Differently from the usual ones, the takenoko from the beginning of the Spring are much sweeter and delicate. It’s delicious!
Shun has also close ties with Japanese ancient medicine. If one base their diet on shun ingredients, they will have a very healthy life. If one is able to enjoy the seasons fully, they can achieve balance and happiness in life.
In Winter, Shun vegetables such as onions and garlic help heating the body. Likewise in Summer, vegetables such as cucumbers and tomatoes are very refreshing. Unagi (Japanese eel) is a popular Shun dish that gives extra energy to endure the heat.
Indeed, due to globalization and trade between countries in modern days, there were naturally changes on fresh ingredients’ availability. However, shun has not lost its meaning: it is part of the local culture and strongly influences people’s daily lives.
From ancient rice planting and harvest ceremonies, Japan still celebrates the four seasons through festivals, rituals, seasonal restaurant menus and why not, supermarket promotions too. Being mindful about Shun allows you experience different vegetables, fruits and a lot of other ingredients that you normally wouldn’t consider trying at all.
Food and cooking and Japan makes you definitely feel the passage of time – it’s good to appreciate and enjoy good moments while they last!