The Japanese love affair with the cherry tree and its pink, fragile sakura blossoms is world renowned. Every spring, the nation eagerly awaits for the first pink buds to appear on bare branches. The sakura zensen, or cherry-blossom opening front tracked by Japan’s meteorological agency, shows where sakura has started flourishing around the nation, and is reported every day on the news.
And once the flowers are in bloom, everyone goes out to enjoy them in the annual rite of spring called hanami — a picnic and party under the blossoming trees. You can even download handy smartphone apps to locate good hanami spots, track the sakura zensen and more.
The love for sakura doesn’t stop at just gazing at the flowers, though: The whole tree gets used in various ways, from homeware to food.
Cherry wood is used as lumber, while the tough, flexible bark is cut into thin strips and used to make small baskets, and to decorate wooden implements such as the bentwood boxes called magewappa. It’s also boiled to extract a medicinal elixir that is thought to be good for the throat and respiratory system, or used as a dye for cloth. Cherries, meanwhile, are called sakuranbo in Japanese. Most of all, both the leaves and the flowers are preserved in salt and eaten.
I often find myself wondering about my ancestors and the extent to which they were willing to find out whether something was edible. Did they try to eat the leaves and flowers of a cherry tree because they were desperately hungry, or because they loved the tree and its blossom so much and wanted to show their affection by ingesting it? It’s impossible to say for sure. In any case, the preserved flowers and leaves with their fragrant, salty-sour taste are two of the many foods that signify spring.
The best edible leaves and flowers don’t come from the Somei-Yoshino tree, the queen of springtime that bursts forth with masses of almost-white, pale pink single flowers. Salt-preserved cherry flowers are usually made with deeper pink multi-petaled Yae-zakura blossoms. The best preserved leaves come from the Oshima-zakura, a variety that has particularly juicy, fragrant foliage. Most domestic preserved sakura leaves are produced on the southern half of the Izu Peninsula, though cheaper leaves are imported from China.
The main use for the preserved leaves is as edible wrappers for sakura-mochi, a traditional sweet (wagashi) that is only available in early to mid spring. Sakura-mochi are so popular around the country that there are several variations, but usually they 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. The salty-sourness of the leaf subtly flavors the bland mochi, and is a great foil for the sweetness of the bean filling.
Until recently, the primary use for preserved sakura flowers was in sakura-yu, a kind of tea made simply by floating a blossom or two in plain boiling water. The clear, faintly pink tea is slightly salty and slightly sour, and makes an interesting change from green tea.
Traditionally, sakura-yu has been the preferred “tea” served at omiai (arranged meetings between potential marriage partners), as well as at weddings and receptions. This is because sakura-yu is clear and unclouded, fine characteristics for a healthy marriage.
How to preserve cherry blossoms
You can try making your own preserved cherry blossoms. First, make sure that the flowers you are using have not been sprayed with chemicals or been otherwise contaminated.
Cut off some not-fully-opened double-blossom or Yae-zakura flowers, leaving a little bit of the stem, and then weigh the flowers: You will add an amount of salt and ume vinegar depending on that weight.
Wash the flowers thoroughly in several changes of water, drain and pat dry with kitchen towels. Layer the blossoms with 20 percent of their weight in sea salt, put a weight on top and leave for several hours or overnight.
Squeeze out the moisture from the blossoms, sprinkle with ume vinegar (1 tablespoon per 50 grams of blossoms), mix and weight down with something like a can on an inverted plate. Leave for 3 days in a cool place or the refrigerator.
Take out the blossoms and line them up in a single layer on a flat sieve, and let dry for 2 to 3 days until the flowers are covered in fine salt crystals. Store in an airtight container, preferably in the refrigerator.
Leaves can be preserved in much the same way as blossoms, but they need to be blanched in boiling water before salting. Use about 25 percent of the weight of the leaves in salt.
Sakura-manjū (cherry buns) are steamed buns with a sweet bean filling that is often (but not always) flavored with sakura flowers, and are decorated with a preserved flower on top. As with sakura-mochi, the salty-sourness of the flower contrasts well with the sweetness of the bun, and the pink and white appearance is very pretty and springlike.
On the savory side, sakura gohan, rice cooked with a few preserved blossoms and dashi stock, also has that spring appeal.
The use of cherry blossom as a flavor has increased greatly in recent years, perhaps due to the availability of inexpensive imported preserved blossoms. (Cherry-blossom flavor is called sakura, as opposed to cherry-fruit flavor, which is usually called cherry or cherī in katakana.)
Every spring you can buy various pink-colored, sakura-flavored confections, ranging from chocolate to candies to chewing gum. Another more sophisticated sakura-flavored food is sakura salt, which is sprinkled on food instead of regular salt for color and flavor. There are sakura-flavored cupcakes, ice cream and jellies. In macarons, the French almond and meringue confection that has been all the rage in Japan for the last couple of years, sakura flavor is used in the ganache filling and the meringue part is colored pink. At Malebranche, a famous patisserie in Kyoto, the macarons are even shaped like cherry blossoms.
Even if you just try a store-bought sakura-mochi or sakura-flavored candy, I hope you’ll try sampling some sakura-flavored foods this spring. After all, what can be more quintessentially Japanese than appreciating the cherry blossoms inside and out?
Recipe for red sea bream sashimi with cherry blossom
Madai (red sea bream) is a subtly flavored fish that is often marinated in salt and konbu seaweed, to give it extra oomph and to improve its texture. Here I’ve used preserved sakura (cherry blossom) leaves and flowers instead of the seaweed and salt, and garnished the plate with blanched nanohana (rape blossom), another quintessentially Japanese harbinger of spring. It’s worth using the highest-quality leaves and blossoms you can afford for the best flavor and fragrance.
Makes 2 to 4 servings
Sashimi-quality red sea bream — 250 g
Preserved sakura leaves — 20
Preserved sakura blossoms — 15-20
Nanohana or broccoli — 1 small bunch
White balsamic vinegar or rice vinegar — 2 tbsp
Soy sauce — to taste
Buy a piece of red sea bream that has already been prepared for sashimi use — boned, trimmed and skinned. This should be easy to get at any large supermarket, fishmonger or department store food hall in Japan. Slice the fish crosswise into ½-cm-thick pieces.
Soak the leaves and flowers in plenty of cold water for 15 minutes. Drain and pat dry with paper towels. Divide the sakura leaves and flowers into two batches each. Line a large plate with half of the leaves, and put the fish pieces in a single layer on top. Scatter about half the sakura flowers on top of that. Wrap the whole plate in plastic wrap, and leave in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour. The longer you leave it, the saltier the fish will become, so you may want to taste the fish after 30 minutes to see if it is salted enough for you.
Wash and cut the nanohana. Bring a pot of water to a boil, and boil the nanohana florets briefly until crisp-tender and bright green. Drain and immerse in cold water to fix the bright green color. Drain well.
Arrange the reserved leaves on a serving plate, and place the sashimi slices on top. Sprinkle with the reserved flowers. Arrange the nanohana florets around the plate. Sprinkle with the white balsamic or rice vinegar and serve immediately.
Diners may choose to wrap the sashimi pieces with the sakura leaves. If it is not salty enough, dip the sashimi lightly in a little soy sauce.