Fresh chestnuts are one of the few things in Japan that are truly seasonal and not available year-round like so many other food products these days. Chestnuts (kuri in Japanese) have been consumed here since prehistoric times. Charred chestnuts that are more than 9,000 years old have been found in and around the archaeological sites of Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.) settlements.
At the 5,500-year-old Sannai-Maruyama site in Aomori Prefecture, evidence of large-scale cultivation of chestnuts has also been discovered — as well as a huge chestnut tree in the center of the settlement that was probably used for religious rituals — indicating their importance as a food source in the days before rice cultivation became widespread. The chestnut wood was valued as building material as well as firewood. Chestnuts are still used in Shinto rituals in some parts of the country, and they’re an important osechi (New Year’s holiday cuisine) dish: a concoction of mashed sweet potatoes with kuri no kanro-ni, chestnuts cooked in sugar syrup. Chestnuts cooked with a crushed gardenia seed are supposed to bring good financial fortune and help make you a winner in life.
Chestnuts are no longer a main staple in the Japanese diet, but they’re still popular in both sweet and savory form. Two of the most popular ways to eat chestnuts these days are imported. One is Tenshin (Tianjin) amaguri, from China, where sweet chestnuts are dry-roasted in a pan and then coated with sesame oil and sugar. The other is Mont Blanc, from France, where pureed chestnut cream and whipped cream is crowned with a sugared chestnut (a proper marron glace or similar). It’s so popular in Japan that it’s far more common here than in France, and there are even faux versions made with pureed sweet potato instead of chestnut cream.
Since chestnuts are hard to peel, the easiest way to make them edible is to cook them in their skins. The usual way to do this in Japan is to boil them in salted water rather than roasting them in the European manner. Soak the chestnuts for a few hours (or overnight), drain and then place in a pan with water to cover and half a tablespoon of salt per liter of water. Bring to a boil, let the chestnuts cook for 10 minutes then lower the heat and simmer for an additional 40 to 45 minutes. Leave to cool in the water until they can be handled. The chestnuts can then be cut in half easily, and the insides can be scooped out with a spoon.
But some recipes require the chestnuts to be peeled. Soak the chestnuts in boiling water in a covered pot, turn the heat off and leave until the water cools. Be sure to discard any chestnuts that float to the surface or have holes in them. Cut the bottom rough part of the shells off with a sharp knife. The rest of the outer shell should peel off quite easily. However, the inner skin or pellicle, appropriately called the shibukawa (“bitter skin”), doesn’t come off that nicely, especially with Japanese chestnuts (European and American varieties are easier to peel I’ve found) — you’ll probably have to cut it away little by little with your knife. Pop the peeled chestnuts in a bowl of fresh water, and use them to make the quintessential fall dish kuri-gohan (chestnut rice), which is ideally made with another star of Autumn: new-harvest rice.
Recipe: Kuri-gohan (Chestnut rice)
500 grams of chestnuts, weighed before peeling
½ tablespoon sugar
2 rice-cooker cups (360 ml) uncooked regular Japanese rice
1½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sake
gomashio (sesame salt) to taste
Rinse the rice and put it into a rice cooker with water filled up to the “regular” cooking line. Leave to soak for at least an hour before cooking.
Soak and peel the chestnuts following the instructions in the article. Drain the peeled chestnuts, cover with fresh water in a pan and add sugar and ½ teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes — chestnuts should still be firm — before draining.
Put the remaining teaspoon of salt and the sake in the rice cooker, and stir to dissolve the salt. Place the parboiled chestnuts on top. Cook using the regular rice setting. When the rice is done, stir in the chestnuts gently. Sprinkle sesame salt on top before serving.
To make chestnut okowa, use ½ rice-cooker cup short grain (mochi) rice and 1½ rice-cooker cups regular rice instead of the 2 cups of regular rice. This version holds up better when cool, so it’s great for bento box lunches.