Bento abloom: Feasts fit for flower gazing

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Hanami Bento   Photo courtesy of Japanese Restaurant NADA MAN
Hanami Bento Photo courtesy of Japanese Restaurant NADA MAN

Bento abloom: Feasts fit for flower gazing

by: Tetsuo Nakahara | .
Stripes Kanto | .
published: April 01, 2014

We all know that Japanese enjoy a party under the cherry blossoms to ring in the springtime. But while sipping sake and “shochu” spirits are par for the course, what are some of the best local delicacies befitting the beauty of cherry trees in bloom?

Basically, “hanami,” or cherry blossom viewing, is a picnic-style event. The dishes people choose can vary according to location. People may barbeque if it is allowed, or a feast befitting a house party may be in order if it is at a home with cherry blossom trees.

The most popular method, however, is to tote a bento lunch box to your favorite hanami site. They can be easy to make, and quite handy as you move from tree to tree in search of the ideal viewing spot.   

Some may cook their handmade bento at home, but it is increasingly popular to buy them at one of the many shops that have started selling special bento with the tastes of springtime and colorful themes such as bright pink just for the occasion.

These designer lunch boxes usually include seasonal foods such as stewed or tempura-fried “sansei” (a seasonal wild mountain vegetable), bamboo shoots, rapeseed blossoms and bracken fern along with year-round favorites like fried chicken and stir-fried shrimp. “Chirashi” sushi, with various toppings on vinegar-flavored rice, is also popular because of the brilliant colors that match cherry blossom hues.

Perhaps the best place to shop for hanami-themed bento is the basement floors of major department stores, known as “depachika” in Japanese. These are virtual ongoing carnivals of culinary delight featuring a variety of sections with vast selections of foods, snacks, sweets, beverages and ingredients.  

Some of the major department stores such as Isetan, Takashimaya and Mitsukoshi have huge bento sections with such variety that it may challenge you to choose only a few items. Surprisingly, you will also find different types of “bento” from all over the world such as Italian or Chinese style.

A culinary adventure in and of themselves, depachika are definitely worth checking it out before heading out for the perfect hanami picnic. Prices vary from item to item, but plan to spend anywhere from 500 to 4,000 yen ($5 to $40) depending on the quality and quantity of grub you want. I would recommend spending 1,500 to 2,000 yen per person on a memorable bento to enjoy for that special occasion.

Another hanami favorite is a traditional Japanese desert called “wagashi,” which comes in different shapes depending on the season. One of the popular wagashi during hanami season is “sakura,” or cherry blossom, mochi (rice cake) which is made from red bean paste and wrapped in a sakura leaf that has been preserved from the previous season.

Many people buy sakura mochi to celebrate the cherry blossom season, however, it was originally made to celebrate Momono Sekku (Peach Festival).” said Kiyomitsu Yajima, wagashi maker of Nishiazabu Aoyagi. Today, most wagashi stores make various desserts for hanami. 

You may also want to try pickled cherry flower tea, or “sakura cha,” which you can find in department stores. Just drop the pickled cherry flower in a cup and pour in hot water. The taste is a combination of saltiness and the flowery fragrance of cherry blossom.

After having lunch, desert and tea don’t forget to take your trash with you – along with the memory of an ideal springtime activity in Japan.

nakahara.tetsuo@stripes.com

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