Seasonal spotlight: Chestnuts
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.
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.