The Japanese have a saying that fall is the season for eating, and with treats like these, you’ll be hard pressed to disagree!
With nights getting slowly darker, temperatures dropping and the leaves changing, there’s no denying the arrival of autumn—and for many of us who have been melting in the heat, it’s something to be celebrated. It’s practically impossible to comfort eat during the Japanese summer, where even getting up for a tub of ice cream works up a sweat, but now you can sink back into those warming dishes and enjoy the comfort of hearty flavors. Here, comfort food doesn’t have to mean unhealthy, so rather than the mountains of carbs we may be used to, you can enjoy seasonal fish, chestnuts and fruits, all offering those sweet fall flavors! So, without further adieu, the top 10 Japanese fall foods:
Matsutake Mushrooms | 松茸
Meaning “pine mushroom”, matsutake mushrooms have, unsurprisingly, an identifiable scent of pine when cooked, with a hearty, almost meaty texture. Although these are the mushrooms that can reach hundreds of thousands of yen, you can also have them quite reasonable in restaurants and at home.
They are often cooked in with rice or used to make a special autumnal soup, with a clear dashi broth. Matsusake mushroom soup is often made at home, with an instantly recognizable aroma, but you can also find it in restaurants who serve seasonal options with meals, like teishoku (the classic Japanese set meal). Another common use is to cook chawanmushi, a savory steamed egg custard often served within a set meal, with the mushrooms adding a seasonal twist.
Where to find them: Try your local teishoku restaurant or have a look in a supermarket or vegetable stall, but beware the hyper-expensive ones in department stores.
Chestnuts | 栗
A popular theme for desserts come autumn, chestnut is a familiar flavor and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. In sweets, the French marron is often used rather than the Japanese name kuri, and can be easily spotted as it is most often presented in delicate piped lines atop cream-filled delights. With Kit Kats, Haagen Dazs and plenty of other seasonally led brands commandeering the flavors early on, you won’t struggle to find chestnut this or that on the shelves this October. Alternatively, kuri is the name of the Japanese chestnut, which can often be found roasted or served in rice or in kuri-manju: a sweet pastry with a whole steamed chestnut inside.
Where to find them: Any nice bakery or cake shop will have plenty of chestnut treats. Try traditional sweet shops, supermarkets or festival stalls for the kuri-manju! We have more on autumnal sweets here too.
Persimmons | 柿
Sweet, soft, tomato-looking fruits you’ll see swinging from the trees or strung up to dry in rows, persimmons are abundant in autumn. Best eaten raw, prepare to get sticky as the soft flesh is almost jelly-like, and can be made into jams. They are more easily eaten with a spoon if you need to retain a look of respectability. There are actually two primary types of persimmon, the hachiya (astringent) and fuyu (non-astringent). The former are very tart until completely ripe and the latter can be eaten firm like an apple. In Japan, you are most likely to come across the hachiya as they ripen and become very soft.
Where to find them: They may drop to the ground in front of you or be given away from roadside boxes if you’re in the countryside. Otherwise you can find them at any greengrocers or supermarket and farmer’s markets too.
Sweet Potato/Yakiimo | 薩摩芋
Your first encounter with these may be from a passing yakiimo truck, with a lingering song fading off into the night and a sweet scent doing just the same. With a stone oven on the back of the cart, they drive slowly around local areas offering this delicious autumnal treat to anyone nearby, hopping out to serve any customers who hail them down. The potato is purple on the outside and yellow on the inside, with a sweet, unique flavor different to any other sweet potatoes out there. Perfect as they are with a natural creaminess or even better with a little butter, salt and pepper, you can make them at home if you’re lucky enough to have a small oven or just befriend someone who does.
Where to find them: Aside from yakiimo trucks, check your local convenience store or supermarket (or even Don Quijote store), who often have them cheaper than carts (albeit with less charm, too).
Grilled Sanma | 秋刀魚
Also known as Pacific saury, sanma are abundant in autumn and the name translates to “autumn swordfish”, which probably gives you a good idea of the kind of fish we’re dealing with. On the small side and with a flavor similar to herring or sardines, this is best served simple—grilled whole with salt and a side of daikon and a slice of lemon. Often used in autumnal breakfasts, you will see the fatty fish grilled or as sashimi, and sometimes seasoned and deep fried. This is a good one to look out for when you have a simple lunch set (teishoku) in traditional restaurants.
Where to find them: Your best bet are traditional Japanese teishoku restaurants offering cheap lunch sets, or fresh at your local supermarket.
Nabe & Oden | 鍋物
As soon as the nights start drawing in, that familiar smell will start to haunt the convenience stores. The bubbling pots of unidentifiable bobbing cubes will appear, and oden will be back. A mild dashi soup with numerous options, oden is a love/hate thing, but as you will be told countless times: very good for digestion! Whether you prefer the age-old eggs, the daikon (radish), fish cake bits, cabbage rolls or meat-and-mochi-stuffed tofu parcels, the dish is a DIY dream (or nightmare, depending on your reaction to those items). There are plenty of healthy additions, such as seaweed and konnyaku (grey, bland, jelly triangles made from a yam) if you fancy them. Although there aren’t many dedicated restaurants you can find oden in convenience stores or izakaya later in the year or make it at home.
Nabe is a more general term for the myriad hotpot dishes that appear in Japan during the colder months, from shabu-shabu to sukiyaki to chankonabe (dinner of the sumo wrestlers) and although more of a winter dish, they appear in autumn and are very welcome.
Pumpkin/Kabocha Korokke | 南瓜 コロッケ
Simple yet satisfying, this is one of the most comforting foods out there: a deep-fried croquette of Japanese pumpkin. Slightly sweet, crispy and all-around delicious, the food is a childhood favorite for many, but there’s no reason you can’t come to it late. Rather than being used in soups and stews, in Japan pumpkin is often fried or served as a mellowing companion to dishes like curry. The croquette is sometimes studded with meat, but best left as is, allowing the soul-warming joy of the unique Japanese kabocha flavor to come out.
Where to find them: Street vendors in smaller areas often have the seasonal treat, otherwise try izakayas or convenience stores.
Shinmai Rice | 新米
As the end of the rice season falls in, well, fall—it’s a great time to settle in with a bowl of shinmai (fresh rice). Shinmai means new rice and is a pleasing treat as the nights get colder. Thought to be softer and moister than older rice, it can only be tried from September to December before losing its ‘new’ status. To achieve this, it must be processed and packaged for sale in the same year it was harvested and is no longer sold after December. Although you can enjoy a bowl on its own to savor the sweetness, it’s also a great way to combine some of the best autumnal flavors. Add ginkgo nuts, chestnuts or matsutake mushrooms for a truly warming dish, full of subtle but hearty flavors you’re sure to enjoy.
Where to find it: Sold at supermarkets and local food markets, it can also be found in some restaurants.
Ginkgo nuts | 銀杏
Harvested as the leaves on the ginkgo trees turn golden, the nuts have long been a sign of Japanese autumn. Often served in izakayas as a drinking snack, they are plump with a bitter flavor, helped along with a dash of salt. When cooked they turn yellow, offering that umami flavor with a hint of sweetness, perfect for mixing into rice, stir-fries or just eating on skewers. The only downside is the terrible smell they release when ripe, but since you probably won’t be picking them yourselves, it doesn’t matter so much!
Where to find it: Always available at yakitori and izakaya joints in autumn, as well as festival stalls.
Hiyaoroshi (冷やおろし) | Akiagari (秋あが)
One of the true tastes of Japan, sake (or nihonshu as it is called here), has its seasonal turns as well. Having been brewed in winter, pasteurized and aged over spring and summer before being ready in autumn, hiyaoroshi and akiagari sake are a delicious seasonal treat you should definitely keep an eye open for. While traditionally matured to be released in autumn, refrigeration and demand have meant many sake brewers wait longer for the perfect flavor, and some release earlier to meet demand.
While fall is still the traditional time of sake, with tastings and events taking place, it is no longer a uniform timeframe. The term akiagari now generally means the most recent batch of sake, released that Autumn. Akiagari is pasteurized for a second time at the end of summer, but otherwise the two follow the same brewing schedules and are both only available in the autumn. The term hiyaoroshi is quite a loose term and it is possible to find non-pasteurized, single- and double-pasteurized versions—all at the discretion of the brewer. Considered to have a youthful and vibrant flavor, it is well worth a try!
Where to find it: Ask for the specialty sake in nice bars, restaurants or in your local liquor store.