What’s more autumnal than chestnuts? I remember when my grandfather came back from the farmers market with a bunch of chestnuts that he would later roast on the stufa. Well, in many Asian countries chestnuts are as popular as here in Europe, and in Japan the love dates back…
…about 5000 years
Chestnuts and Japan have a very long history, as they have been found in archaeological sites of settlements from the Jomon period (10,000-200 BC). Archaeologists have discovered that large-scale chestnut cultivation existed in Aomori prefecture more than 5,000 years ago. Until rice spread, in fact, the most important food source was chestnuts. The kuri are still used today in some Shinto rites, as well as being a dish for the osechi, the set of foods th Japanese eat the first day of the new year. Kuri kinton, this is the name, is a mixture of sweet potatoes and chestnuts (photo below); it is eaten on New Year’s Eve because its golden color is a symbol of prosperity for the new year.
A typical Japanese meal with a twist
Around this time every year, wherever I’m strolling around whatever city I’m in, I’m on the look for someone who sells roasted chestnuts. Japan makes no difference; throughout the winter it will be easy to find stalls of roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes in various parts of the city. Imagine coming back home after a long day and hold a sachet of warm chestnuts in your hands…
A traditional dish with chestnuts for autumn in Japan is kuri gohan (pictured below). A way like any other to use freshly harvested rice and mix it with the most typical flavor of the season.
The Japanese are also masters in adopting and adapting foreign dishes to their taste. One is tenshin amaguri, from China: chestnuts are roasted in a pan and then covered with sesame oil and sugar. The other is the French Mont Blanc: the chestnut cream hides tiny pieces of chestnuts and is topped with a marron glacé.
Many traditional Japanese sweets undergo an autumn remake. Try kuri-manju or kuri-dorayaki, filled with red bean jam with a whole or chopped chestnut inside.
Not only that! Just go to shopping centers, supermarkets and konbini and you will see how much chestnuts are used in this period: roll-cakes, puddings, chocolate, candies, flavored tea and milk and much more.
How to cook chestnuts “Japanese style”
Unlike in Italy, where chestnuts are mostly roasted, in Japan they prefer to boil them in salted water. Just soak them the night before and then boil them for 40-45 minutes. This method allows you to peel chestnuts more easily, with a spoon, once cold.
There are recipes for which chestnuts must be cooked without peel, such as kuri gohan. In this case it is more complicated to remove the inner skin, called shibukawa (or ‘bitter skin’).