Seasonal Shift: Kuzu and Japan’s Autumnal Plants
Growing up in California, Labor Day was never a momentous holiday. It never felt like the end of summer and beginning of autumn. Yet, here in New York when September 1st rolls around something in the air and atmosphere fundamentally shifts. It’s definitive. Comparatively, in Japan there is no one (holi)day that marks a delineation between summer and fall. Rather the atmosphere, like the change in seasons is a gradual progression.
If one considers fall in terms of the twenty-four seasonal divides, a traditional calendar form where the year is divided into temporal periods that represent atmospheric or terrestrial phenomenon, then perhaps the period between August 23rd and September 8th is the period where one could say “summer becomes autumn.” August 23rd marks the “Limit of Heat,” and September 8th the “White Dew” period. Now into the first full week of September, we can say for all intents and purposes, autumn is technically (and calendrically) here.
Associated with autumn are a myriad of traditions and aesthetics in Japan. One of the most notable is the so-called “Seven Wild Grasses and Flowers of Autumn.” These consist of Japanese bush clover, Japanese pampas (silver) grass,kuzu, Pinks, Golden Lace, Bonset and Bluebells (or, sometimes, Morning Glories). Even nowadays it is very easy to encounter some of these types of these flowers blooming along the roadside, in alleyways, and wild, fallow fields.
Of the bunch only kuzu is edible and regularly utilized ingredient in Japanese cookery. Many Americans may know kuzu as the infamous “kudzu”—the highly invasive plant. Especially in the Southern United States, where kudzu was originally introduced as forage for livestock, this weed is a serious problem–suffocating forests and ruining the local ecology. But for all its negative connotations, kuzu is a rather extraordinary plant. It contains several medical chemicals such as daidzen, used to fight inflammation and microbial infections, dilute coronary arteries, relax muscles, and promote estrous cycles. It also contains daidzin, which is used to prevent cancer, and genistein, an anti-leukemic. Kudzu has been used medicinally in China and Japan for close to 2,000 years.
Not only medicinally, kuzu products have been consumed by Japanese in various forms. You can eat the leaves like spinach (you must blanch them first), grind the root for tea or create gelatinous sweets. Most Japanese are familiar with kuzu-mochi, a type of simple gelatin like dessert that is eaten chilled in the summer time as a refreshing sweet. While autumn may be upon us in New York and the rest of the northern hemisphere, there are still a few hot days to try your hand at making kuzu mochi. Although originally topped with kinako(dried, powdered soy bean—similar to a peanut in flavor) or kurozato (dark sugar syrup, akin to molasses), for a creative flair you could even top it it with apple butter or maple syrup and cinnamon to give it an autumnal taste.
To learn more about the Seven Wild Grasses and Flowers of Autumn, check out this webpage.
To learn more about cooking with kuzu, check out this page. Many here in the states may have more access to this plant than you may imagine. It is quite common throughout much of the Southern, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. http://www.mitoku.com/products/kuzu/cookingwithkuzu.html
To learn more about the healing properties of kuzu, check out this link. Healing kuzu: http://twelvewellness.com/healing-with-kuzu-root/
For more recipes, check out the English version of the Japanese site, Cookpad. You can do so here. https://en.cookpad.com/search/kudzu
To learn more about the Japanese seasonal calendar, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_calendar