I recently bought the June issue of Kyō no Ryōri (Today’s Cooking). It’s the magazine published in conjunction with a famous Japanese TV cooking show, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The TV show and the magazine feature wholesome housewife cuisine, lightly touching on some foreign food (gratins! clam chowder! pesto!). The featured article this month is “Mankitsu! Shun no saki!” (“Fully enjoy! What’s blooming in season!”). “Blooming” in June are garlic, ginger, shiso, and myoga. It’s also time for ume (Japanese plums/apricots). There are recipes for ume shu (plum “wine”), umeboshi (pickled plums made with red shiso leaves), and ume jam. The recipes look delicious, but it’s the kanji for shun that fascinates me.

Shun means “in season” (and is pronounced “shoon,” but don’t hold the “oo” too long). In a recent issue of Kateigaho, I read: “Shun means a period when a certain food is at its peak—both in quantity (so it can be found in abundance in the market) and in quality, with the highest concentration of nutrients.” Nothing exotic in that definition. One must examine the character itself for some history: the kanji for shun is made up of the symbol for “encircle” and the symbol for “day.” The Japanese imported a time concept from ancient China that divided the year into 24 sekki (of about 15 days each). Sekki were seasonal periods relating to festivals and folk customs, some customs surviving to today. Shun is also pronounced jun, and refers to a 10-day period. In addition to the sekki time cycles, in the Japanese calendar, months were roughly divided into three 10-day periods. Therefore, the time cycle and the time of maximum freshness are linked in one kanji. [I’m still looking into exactly how sekki and jun relate to each other, if at all.]

Consequently, in my local market there are huge piles of the shun ingredients. The garlic comes in several varieties depending on how one will use it. There’s a recipe in the magazine for not-very-Japanese “garlic chips” which would be used on salads and on top of stir fries. On the TV show last night, the teacher/chef recommended one save the garlic-infused frying oil to use in salad dressings. The ginger in the market is gloriously pink baby ginger with a long green stem attached. One lightly pickles the ginger by soaking it in vinegar and then eats it as a garnish with grilled fish. My Japanese food dictionary says shiso is “perilla or beefsteak plant,” which will be unhelpful to most English speakers. It’s that green leaf served underneath sashimi in many sushi restaurants in the US. In Japan, it comes in both green and red varieties. Chefs use not only the leaf, but also the flower buds and the sprouts for various dishes and garnishes. Myoga is a kind of ginger, but one only eats the buds and not the rhizome. It tastes like a light herbal ginger, a touch medicinal, but is wonderful in salads (and I see it in a recipe for a pork stir fry that I must try).

Right now the weather is glorious: warm, sunny, breezy. In my neighborhood, the laundry is flying. I associate the sun with t-shirts and jeans and towels flapping in the wind. (May I put a word in for this organization?) I sit and drink green tea on my front porch while reading the newspaper. A nature columnist advises his readers to start looking for shiokara-tombo (a species of dragonfly) and to enjoy the Japanese thistles before the rainy season arrives. Baiu (early summer monsoon) is on the way, but if read literally, the kanji for baiu is “apricot rain.”

In this marvelous way, Japanese language and culture circle around. I read cooking magazines to learn useful kanji and to follow the changing seasonal recipes. My local market is stuffed with shun apricots. It’s time to put up the fresh ume as sweet jam, as salty pickles, as infused alcohol. After all, the apricots have been raining for centuries. And for me a new cycle of words, culture, and ingredients will arrive, on time and in season.

I have more to say about shun as a concept, but I’ll come back to it in a sekki or so…

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