The sakura have begun to bloom, and there is hardly a more attractive time of year to visit Japan than now.
Clouds of pink petals are covering the nation as friends and family gather for a week of hanami, or flower viewing parties.
It’s this time of year that sakura-flavored goods start filling the shelves. That’s right, Japan’s love for this transient bloom doesn’t just stop at merely gazing at them– they also eat the blossoms and the leaves. That’s right, each year, blossoms and leaves are picked fresh from the trees to be preserved in salt to be consumed later.
If you have the chance, give something sakura flavored a try, but do be aware of what you’re actually eating.
Sakura (桜) means “cherry blossom”, but do not expect it to taste cherry-flavored or you’ll be severely disappointed. The taste is that of actual blossoms and does taste on the flowery side– nothing at all like cherries. I know a lot of foreigners who continually make this mistake, only to spit out what they’re eating in disgust!
Previously the preserved flowers were for use in sakura-yu, a kind of tea made by simply floating a blossom or two in plain boiling water. The clear, faintly pink tea is slightly salty and slightly sour, which makes for a nice change from green or barley tea.
Nowadays you can find the preserved blossoms being used for a wide range of foods and snacks, and not just tea.
One of the most favorited snacks this time of year is sakura-mochi. This is a traditional sweet only available during spring. There are several variations of this sweet, but the two main ones are chomeiji (Kanto style) and domyoji (Kansai style) style. Both types are made of mochi filled with sweetened red bean paste.
It is this dessert that makes use of sakura tree leaves as an edible wrapper. The pickled taste of the leaf contrasts nicely with the sweet red bean inside, making for a unique blend of flavors.
Another popular way to taste the flavor of cherry blossoms is with sakura-manju. These are also filled with red bean, but instead of mochi on the outside, they are a type of steamed bun.
The cherry blossom flavored goods don’t just stop at traditional snacks. Of course you can always find flavored candies, chocolates and other confections during this time. Sakura-flavored cupcakes, ice cream, jellies, you name it, they probably have it.
Breads and pastries are often made to look like the blossoms, or will simply put a preserved blossom on top for decoration.
Even Starbucks comes out with a sakura Frappuccino, McDonalds with sakura McFlurries and Krispy Kreme with sakura donuts. Yes, sakura donuts, combining my two greatest weaknesses of donuts and cute things, how could I resist?
Most popualr snacks like Calbee chips, Pocky, or my favorite, KitKat, release limited edition snacks available only in spring as well. While most of these are sweet desserts that make sense, some of the things sound like a really strange combination, like sakura shrimp potato chips.
Like in Hong Kong, macarons have become very popular in Japan. At Malebranche, a famous patisserie in Kyoto, they sell sakura macarons that used a sakura-flavored ganache and the meringue is colored a light pink. To top it off, the macarons are even beautifully shaped like blossoms.
Even if it’s only from a fast food chain, I hope you’ll try some sakura-flavored goods this spring if given the chance. After all, nothing says spring quite like cherry blossoms in Japan.