As fall descends upon Japan, the hearty chestnut comes into season. While the concept of seasonal foods is very popular in Japan, most ingredients deemed “seasonal” can be produced and consumed year-round. The chestnut, however, is an exception to this, and is truly only available in the fall and winter. The size of the mature tree, usually 20-40 meters in height, makes it impossible to cultivate artificially and as such, old-fashioned seasonal shifting is required to bring the chestnuts to fruit.
Japanese chestnuts, called kuri, are native to Japan and Korea and many cultivars have been bred for larger size. The seeds dwarf European and American chestnuts and can be almost as big as the palm of your hand. In contrast to European and American varieties, Japanese chestnuts are usually prepared by boiling in salt water rather than roasting. Prepared kuri are soft and fleshy, with a sweet and nutty flavor. They can be used in both sweet and savory dishes and are immensely popular in Japan during the colder half of the year.
Chestnuts as a food item have been a part of Japanese cuisine for thousands of years. Archaeological sites have revealed charred remains of chestnuts from settlements in the early Jomon Period (10,000-200 BC) showing that even the most ancient Japanese enjoyed them during the fall. Of particular note are the remains of a settlement in Aomori Prefecture that shows clear evidence of the large-scale cultivation of chestnuts. The settlement, thought to be around 5,500 years old, features the remains of a large chestnut tree in the center of the village indicating the importance of the crop to the people who lived there.
Today, chestnuts are used in a wide assortment of dishes. One of the most basic is kuri-gohan, or chestnut rice. Freshly boiled chestnuts are broken into chunks and mixed into a lightly seasoned rice, topped with black sesame seeds. The resulting dish is warm and hearty-- perfect for the fall. As a testament to their versatility, chestnuts play a significant role in Japanese desserts, appearing mixed with bean paste in monaka and dorayaki. Mont blanc cakes made with kuri paste (rather than European chestnut) have become a favorite in Japan, outstripping their popularity in their country of origin, France, by a significant margin. Chestnuts also make an appearance in traditional new year’s food in the form of kurikinton-- a sweet paste-like dish made with chunks of chestnut and mashed sweet potato.
Eaten alone, or as part of another dish, kuri are a delicious way to usher in the fall. Not only are they excellent in taste and texture, they are high in fiber, calcium, iron, vitamins B1 and C making them healthy to boot. Due to their seasonally dependent production, kuri are only available at Maido during the fall and winter months. Be sure to grab some and partake in their autumn flavor while they’re around.