It’s hard to tell when the real season for fresh strawberries is in Japan, they are even available in December. The actual season, however, goes from spring until early summer, starting with the ones grown in southern Kyushu and ending with the ones grown in the north. In the Kanto region, strawberries from Tochigi Prefecture — the leading producer of strawberries in the country — are in season from March until early May.
A small, wild variety of strawberries is mentioned in “The Pillow Book” by Sei Shonagon, written between the 990s to early 1000s, as a sweet treat enjoyed by the Heian Imperial Court. The type of strawberry that we know today — called “Dutch strawberries” — first entered Japan around the 1840s.They were mostly enjoyed as ornamental plants. Strawberry cultivation was introduced around the 1880s, but it was only after World War II, when greenhouse production became widespread, that they became affordable enough for the general public. Up until then they were rare, expensive commodities. There’s a scene in the 2013 NHK morning drama “Gochisosan,” which takes place in the late Taisho Period (1912-26), where the protagonist Meiko gets into big trouble for stealing some strawberries that had been left as an offering at a Shinto shrine.
Japan is the seventh largest producer of strawberries in the world as of 2013, with just about all of the output consumed domestically. What makes Japanese strawberries interesting is the bewildering number of varieties available, with new ones introduced almost every year.
Tochigi Prefecture is famous for a variety called Tochi Otome (which means “Tochigi Maiden”), a relatively small, sweet and fragrant variety, while Fukuoka Prefecture, which is second in strawberry production after Tochigi, has the Amao (“Sweet King”), with enormous, sweet berries that are four to five times the size of other varieties. Strawberry producers vie fiercely for the claim to the sweetest, most fragrant variety, some with imaginative names such as Beni Hoppe (“Red Cheeks”), Hatsukoi no Kaori (“The Scent of First Love,” which is a striking white berry) and Bijin-hime (“Beautiful Princess”).
Premium strawberries are popular as gifts, with flawless, carefully packaged berries costing several hundred yen each or more. Prices are a lot more reasonable for slightly less perfect berries though, especially at this time of year. A popular pastime in the spring is strawberry picking. Many strawberry producers open up their greenhouses to the public, where you are allowed to pick all the strawberries you can manage within a given time.
With strawberries being so popular, some quintessentially Japanese sweets using them have appeared over the years. One of the most popular is the ichigo daifuku, a variation on the classic daifuku mochi; it’s a soft mochi dough dumpling filled with sweet azuki an (red bean paste) and a whole, fresh strawberry. The combination of sweetness and tartness works surprisingly well. Although it only appeared in the early Showa Era (1926-89), it’s so popular that several wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) makers around the country claim that they invented it. The most popular type of Christmas cake is a sponge cake and whipped cream layer cake with fresh strawberries called, somewhat confusingly, a “strawberry shortcake,” even though it differs from the cake with the same name in the U.S. and other countries.
The recipe included here is for another very Japanese snack, a fruit sandwich, which first appeared on the menus of fruit parlors and fashionable cafes in Tokyo and Kyoto in the 1930s. I think the best version is made with strawberries; the tart-sweet flavor goes so well with the sweet cream. I’ve used a classic combination of custard and whipped cream, but you can try one or a combination of mascarpone, drained yogurt, custard or whipped cream. White sliced bread is traditional, but brioche, soft rolls and raisin bread work well, too.
Recipe: Strawberry and cream sandwiches
- 220 grams whole milk
- 1 vanilla bean
- 3 egg yolks
- 60 grams white sugar
- 15 grams white flour
- 15 grams cornstarch
- 120 grams heavy cream
- 4-6 slices of white bread
- 8-12 small ripe strawberries, washed, hulled, dried and halved
To make the custard, heat the milk and vanilla bean until the mixture is just about to boil.
Combine the egg yolks, sugar, flour and cornstarch in a bowl. Beat well with a spatula until it turns lemon yellow. Take out the vanilla bean and add hot milk to the egg mixture a little at a time, mixing well between additions.
Pour the mixture into the pan and cook while stirring over low heat until it coats the back of a wooden spoon. Strain through a sieve, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Whip the cream until stiff peaks form then combine with the custard. Spread the cream on one side of the white bread, and line up the strawberries (halved if needed) on top. Spread more cream on top, filling the gaps between the berries, top with the second slice of bread.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour. Cut off the crusts, slice and serve.