It is difficult to convey, visually or verbally, the utter magic of the Japanese cherry blossom season. Although the blooms signal the arrival of warmth, their appearance can evoke both melancholy and joy. In their brief yet exuberant existence, sakura express spring’s inherent duality: it is both the most longed-for and short-lived season of all, imbued with promise but often tempered by the realization that another year has passed so quickly, and with so little awareness.
Sakura always appear on the cusp, heralding spring but not quite removed from winter. I can remember many occasions while traveling between Matsumoto and Tokyo, deep in the mountains, when I would catch sight of a burst of pale pink against the brown-green slopes. At this time of year, the air still had a faint chill around the edges, and fog often hung in thick layers across the steep hillsides. The sight of a single blooming sakura, standing alone amid barren trees, was both breathtaking and eerie, like glimpsing a strange forest sentinel.
When I returned to Japan after the March 2011 earthquake, the cherry blossoms were at their peak, a poignant reminder of what had been lost and gained in the span of a few weeks. I took a certain comfort in their presence, and in the way the blossom-studded branches seemed to reach hopefully and determinedly toward the sky.
Although the sakura have come and gone in New York, I’ve been on a quest to capture and preserve their inimitable character for the coming months. Photos do a fine job, but their static quality does little to capture temporality in its truest sense.
In honor of the Japanese tradition of hanami (cherry blossom viewing), I decided to host a picnic in a lovely, overlooked park in Queens. At one end of the park was a stand of stout cherry trees. The blossoms were not the delicate, pale type seen in Japan, but a much more showy variety, deep pink with layered, ruffled petals. I plucked a few buds from the branches (disregarding the admonitions of nearby children) and tucked them into an aluminum foil packet. Back at home, I stirred a few heaping spoonfuls of fine sea salt into a bit of water; into this briny bath went the tiny flowers, which were destined to become sakura no shiozuke, or salt-pickled cherry blossoms.
In Japanese cuisine, these peculiar pickles are mostly commonly consumed in the form of sakura mochi, a ball of red bean paste coated with mochi (often dyed pink), wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf, and garnished with a salty bloom.
My own experiment with making pickled cherry blossoms yielded a surprising result. Although the flowers had no detectable scent when they were fresh, after a week in their saltwater bath they had taken on a deeper, more vibrant pink coloration and smelled overwhelmingly of almond extract (perhaps due to latent amygdalin in the buds?) mixed with a hint of the inimitable fragrance that is unique to sakura. I popped one into my mouth and was immediately transported back to a kitchen table in Hakodate, where I sipped my first cup of sakura-yu alongside sweet-salty senbei and rum-raisin sandwich cookies from Rokkatei.
A few of the pickled blossoms were destined to become garnishes for hōjicha panna cotta, lending a subtle saltiness and piquancy to the creamy, nutty custard. In edible form, sakura are far more compelling than as pure visual pleasure. The tangible, visceral experience of consumption is both more elusive and more lasting than a photo: the flavor sticks with you and yet leaves you wanting more, a haunting (and fitting) way to enjoy the season’s fleeting pleasures.
How would you savor sakura, if you had the chance?