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Seasonal spotlight: Chestnuts

November 22, 2010
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Thanks to Nat King Cole, most Americans associate chestnuts with Christmas. Up until I came to Japan for the first time, I did too. But in spite of the chestnuts=holiday season equation: I had never tasted a chestnut in my whole life. As far as I can tell, the main reason for this was the fact that I grew up in the Western United States where chestnuts simply aren’t a food you see very frequently on sale in stores or other places. The second reason is that my mother loathes chestnuts for some reason, so even if chestnuts were on sale at the grocery store they never showed up in my household since the person in charge of grocery shopping never would have purchased them (sorry Mom, but it’s true).

In any case, when I spent my first autumn in Japan I thought it was pretty interesting that Japanese people associate chestnuts (“kuri” in Japanese) with the fall season. They’re absolutely everywhere this time of year from bags of chestnuts sold at grocery and department stores to restaurant menus and in autumn-themed decorations. Just like an illustration of a turkey will immediately make Americans think “Thanksgiving,” a drawing of chestnuts (often nestled in their spiny coverings) unequivocally signifies “autumn” to Japanese people.

There are a variety of ways in which chestnuts are incorporated into Japanese food. They are used in kuri gohan (rice cooked with chestnuts), okowa (glutinous rice steamed with various things), and included in a range of simmered vegetable dishes. They are also made into candied chestnuts which are stirred into sweet potato puree to make kuri kinton, a sweet dish that is almost always included in osechi (traditional New Year’s cuisine, which I will talk more about next month). There are also many stands all over Tokyo and probably the whole country that sell whole roasted chestnuts.

A very crowded roasted chestnut stand in Ueno

Perhaps the most ubiquitous use of chestnuts in Japan is not, in fact, a traditional Japanese dish. Almost every bakery and cake shop sells its own version of Mont Blanc (pronounced monburan in Japanese), a French dessert made with chestnut paste. In true Japanese fashion the variations you will find on this one simple idea are endless. Most Mont Blanc have various types of cake in the middle, some are more like a tart or a pie, some contain candied chestnuts, and some are even made with kabocha squash or sweet potatoes instead of chestnuts. Japanese people are crazy about this dessert, but I’m not a big fan because I find most Mont Blanc to be way too squishy and sickly-sweet for my tastes. (Speaking of sweet, here’s a “cute” chestnut character and a sweet chestnut soft drink.)

Chestnuts, it should be noted, are a pain to peel. Some people recommend grilling them a bit to make them easier to peel but I prefer to just go at it with a knife and a great deal of patience. Here’s a video showing how to peel chestnuts with a knife in a much more neat fashion than I am capable of.

I’ve made chestnut rice a number of times but I’ve never been quite satisfied with the outcome so I’m not going to share my recipe until I refine it further. Instead, here are a number of recipes for Japanese-inspired chestnut dishes I’ve found online, including a couple for chestnut rice.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2010 8:18 am

    I just bought a package of chestnuts a week ago or so, though I’ve had yet to do anything with them yet.

    I had never seen them at a store before, but found them at Trader Joe’s.

    • November 22, 2010 4:19 pm

      I’ve never seen them at a regular grocery store in the States before, so that’s interesting! I’ll be interested to see what you do with them. I usually only make chestnut rice (which is always a winner), but roasting them plain is pretty good too (although I’m not sure how one would do that in a normal kitchen…)

  2. November 22, 2010 3:17 pm

    The first time I tried roasted chestnuts at Japantown in San Francisco I did not like them. I think in retrospect I didn’t really know to expect and was unsure of the flavor and texture that I was confronted with.

    Because of that experience I avoided them for the first year or so I lived in Tokyo until I decided randomly one day to try them again. Of course, I absolutely loved them on second try, and went crazy that year stopping at the various roasted chestnut stands lining the streets. When Alexa was here we actually ate quite a lot of them on our travels around town.

    I’m with you on Mont Blanc. I am not opposed to the chestnut cream itself, but it is very hard to find any versions of that particular dessert that do not overdo it with mounds and mounds of sweet chestnut cream. I much prefer the way Doughnut Plant did it with their ont Blanc Cake doughnut: lots of doughnut, a reasonable amount of chestnut cream, and whole chestnut pieces. Yum!

    • November 22, 2010 4:24 pm

      They do have a pretty weird texture so I can understand being surprised! I really can’t remember the first time I ate a roasted chestnut, but it might have been in Chinatown. Roasted chestnuts are definitely something I need to buy more often…

      Yes, that doughnut was something special! :-D I had a Mont Blanc tart once too that had a really thick nut crust and big pieces of candied chestnut that balanced out the gooey chestnut cream so it wasn’t as gross. (I think I’d rather have the doughnut though!)

  3. November 22, 2010 4:33 pm

    Qoo has a chestnut flavor now? Hm.. Weird. Although even if I was still as obsessed with Qoo as I was up to a few years ago, I don’t think I’d want to try it. Even excluding my general aversion to nuts (except for a couple kinds, when they’re baked into things or coated in chocolate), I was never big on the mont blanc flavor either. oh well.

    I still say white grape Qoo is one of the best drinks ever, although it’s since been surpassed (by far) by the JAL SkyTime yuzu drink. Too bad you can only get white grape Qoo at McDonald’s anymore, and the JAL yuzu drink is pretty rare to find (although they have it in our school office cafeteria now!)

    • November 25, 2010 6:49 am

      Yeah, I just randomly found the chestnut Qoo online although I’ve never seen it anywhere! It seems kind of frightening to me, only because I’m afraid it would taste like mont blanc.

      I had that white grape Qoo once many years ago and I remember that it actually tasted like white grape (there’s a whole separate entry: why do Japanese artificial flavors actually taste like the real thing?) And I’ve never seen that yuzu drink. :-O What an intriguing idea! And right there for you to enjoy at lunch!

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