A favorite Japanese past time is Hanami, or Japanese flower viewing celebrations. In this case, Sarah B. Hodge is back to talk about the viewing of Cherry Blossoms (sakura); needless to say, delicious foods and drinks are always a part of this!
It’s Cherry Blossom Season in Japan
2020 has proven to be a strange year indeed…
Normally at this time, the Japanese are excitedly packing up the equivalent of picnic hampers full of beer, sake, and springtime delicacies to be enjoyed communally under the delicate, fleeting cherry blossoms. But with COVID-19 ravaging the globe and Japan currently under a state of emergency, some of Japan’s best-known cherry blossom festivals such as Hirosaki and Nakameguro have been canceled, and parks placed off-limits to would-be picnickers.
However, hanami bento can still be enjoyed from the comfort (and safety!) of home.
Enjoying Hanami Bento
The key to a successful hanami bento is a combination of flavors, textures, and foods that will hold up well without refrigeration (less an issue if you’re having a hanami party from home). Ideally, you’ll want items that make good finger foods and that taste good at room temperature.
Foods I make regularly that travel well include:
- Inarizushi with salt-preserved cherry blossoms
- Cherry blossom onigiri
- Cherry blossom tofu
- Tricolor quail eggs made to look like festive hanami dango (marinate cooked, peeled quail eggs in a solution of matcha or spinach furikake for green / mentaiko furikake sprinkles mixed with water for pink; the longer you let the eggs marinate, the more pronounced the color will be)
For a Western-inspired treat, consider mozzarella caprese on bamboo skewers traditionally used for yakitori: simply layer bocconcini, fresh basil, and cherry tomatoes. Just before serving, drizzle with a balsamic glaze.
Hanami-themed desserts can range from the simple (succulent fresh strawberries) to traditional hanami dango and sakura mochi, or if you’re in a baking mood, these divine sweet-with-a-hint-of-salt sakura cookies or sakura madeleines.
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Sakura Tofu Recipe
- 500 grams firm tofu
- 50 grams Japanese yam (yamaimo), peeled and grated
- 30 grams salted cherry blossoms soaked in several changes of cold water to remove excess salt (reserve around four of the nicest-looking blossoms to decorate the top)
- 1 tbsp white sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sake
- Wrap the tofu in cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel.The starting weight of the tofu is 500 gramsPress and squeeze the tofu and turn it, removing excess water.After squeezing the water out, the tofu should weigh 350 grams.Put the tofu in a mortar.Grind the tofu into a fine paste.
- Add the grated Japanese yam, sugar, salt, and sake and continue to grind and mix well until evenly distributed. Add the cherry blossoms and mix well.Put the tofu in a greased silicone baking mold or a metal kanten mold with removable sides and decorate with the cherry blossoms. You can also use a small rectangular tray or dish as an alternative. You can also use a greased silicone pancake ring to make individual tofu blossoms! Steam for 15 minutes.To serve, take out the tofu and cut it into 4 pieces (or unmold if using a silicone mold).
Want more Sakura Tofu Guidance?
Here is a step-by-step instructional video that may be helpful. The narration is in Japanese but there are English subtitles provided.
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There are also several tips and tricks to make your bento seasonally themed: the cheapest and most eye-catching is investing in a set of metal cutters in the shape of cherry blossoms or individual petals. These work best with firm raw vegetables like carrots, rainbow radishes, and bell peppers (if you want to cook the vegetables, such as carrots, cut first then cook just until al dente or they will fall apart on toothpicks). You can also use these cutters to make cute, three-dimensional cherry blossom garnishes of pressed ham layered on top of white cheese slices or kamaboko (fish sausage).
Another useful tool is a wooden or metal sakura rice mold. I purchase mine from revered knife shop Aritsugu, which has been in business since the 16th century.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a Japanese grocery store or 100-yen shop like Daiso, you’ll find loads of seasonal bento items specifically designed for hanami, including waxed paper cups for individual portions and cute wooden toothpicks topped with cherry blossoms and other seasonal shapes. If you’ll be having your hanami picnic indoors, use a colorful floral tablecloth or furoshiki as a mat and decorate with fresh flowers.
Many Japanese sake and beer breweries produce springtime releases; Kanagawa-based Sankt Gallen takes it one step further with its sakura beer. Each 2,340-liter (618.2-gallon) batch of Sankt Gallen Sakura is made with 60 kilograms of (132.2 pounds) of petals from Nagano Prefecture’s Koen no Sakura variety of cherry blossoms.
So no matter how or where you choose to enjoy your hanami bento, take a moment to breathe deeply and appreciate the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms and the renewal of spring.
Sarah B. Hodge (www.bundtlust.com) is a food and travel writer for several publications in Japan including JNTO’s Tokyo and Beyond: 2020 Tokyo Olympics tourism website, Tokyo Weekender and Stars and Stripes Japan. She also is a recipe tester, proofreader, and cookbook reviewer for a wide range of international cookbook releases.All Photographs by Sarah B. Hodge.