Sakura Season


Celebrate spring in Victoria with a pretty-in-pink Japanese picnic beneath the blooming cherry trees


Cinda Chavich photos

By CINDA CHAVICH


One of the joys of spring in the city is the frothy pink delight of cherry blossoms.

It’s such a magical gift to turn a corner and pass beneath a corridor of blooming trees. Pretty pink cherries and plums bloom in successive waves, the end of the season marked by blizzards of falling petals, drifting along the curb.

We can thank Japan for the sakura (cherry blossoms) we have enjoyed here for decades. The Japanese community donated 1,000 of the flowering cherry trees lining downtown streets in the 1930s, with hundreds more planted around the city over the years. In 1936, 500 cherry trees were imported from Japan to be planted in Butchart Gardens and along Benvenuto Avenue in Brentwood Bay, with the gardens still home to 24 varieties of sakura specimens.

And while spring is the perfect time to haul out your camera and take a walk down Moss Street or through Beacon Hill Park to admire the blooms, it’s also a great opportunity to share another Japanese tradition, the Hanami Picnic.


JAPANESE TRADITIONS

Chef Moto Nozawa and his wife Minako recall growing up in Japan, where hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties are annual events, whether it’s the company picnic or a family gathering. Sakura season is celebrated by all, parks crowded with people supping and sipping beneath the blooming boughs late into the night.



While there will be no big gatherings in Japanese parks this year, we can still celebrate the season while sheltering at home with Nozawa’s Japanese cuisine.

When their family arrived in Victoria just two years ago, Nozawa says the city’s iconic trees reminded him of home.

“All of the cherry trees blooming here is just like Japan,” says Nozawa, who cooked at several top restaurants and hotels in Alberta before joining the team at House of Boateng. I asked Nozawa to share a favourite Japanese picnic food and he presented a stunning display of intricate blossom-shaped sushi rolls, dyed fuchsia pink with beet juice, alongside little skewers of salmon, chicken and tofu, marinated in sweet soy and mirin.

“We have a packed lunch, according to the season,” he says, “and for Hanami, it’s a sakura theme, pink foods and sweets.”





If you missed The House of Boateng’s recent Japanese dinner, Nozawa says they will definitely be doing it again. The chefs at the restaurant are offering special supper club dinners for take-out or delivery every Friday and Saturday. The menu changes weekly, but the rotation includes chef Nozawa’s three-course traditional Japanese dinner of pretty Hanami sushi, Okonomiyaki pancake with Yakibuta pork loin, and skewers of Kushi Yaki chicken and beef with charred edamame. (Check their Facebook or Instagram feeds to find out what’s on the menu this week, or order specialties from their HOB Market, including Chef Castro’s hot sauce, jerk marinade and salad dressing, greens from Plot Market Garden, local eggs and other seasonal specialties.)


SPRING IS THE THING

Cherry blossom season is a big deal in Japan — everything turns pink to celebrate sakura, whether it’s savory pink mochi and rice balls studded with pickled sakura blossoms, or a Starbucks cherry blossom frappuccino. There are seasonal sakura specialties in local cafés and department stores. Think blossoms floating in sakura jellies, sakura season ramen, mini sakura Cinnabons with blossom-infused cream cheese icing, or the limited edition Coca-Cola in flowery pink bottles. You’ll find sakura season foods in bakeries, supermarkets and convenience stores in Japan — ready-to-eat bento boxes with onigiri rice balls, pale pink cakes and mochi desserts, even pink prawn burgers on pink buns.


Traditionally, cherry blossoms are pickled with salt and umezu (vinegar), added to wagashi (a Japanese sweet), and anpan, a sweet bread with bean paste, or used to make herbal sakura tea.

Chef Takashi Ito, who recently retired as executive chef at the Inn at Laurel Point, was thinking about those salty blossoms when he suggested serving rice balls tinted pale pink with red shiso for a picnic, alongside lightly pickled spot prawns, sous vide BC salmon with ginger sakura glaze and sekihan rice, cooked with red adzuki beans.

“Hanimi lunch is for welcoming spring, celebrating the beauty of nature, and enjoying lunch with people you care about,” says Ito.


PRETTY IN PINK

With pink as your inspiration, you’ll find both traditional and creative food and drink to celebrate sakura season in Victoria, from pink glazed donuts to pretty macaron. Pack a picnic with pink tableware, serve blush wines and pink lemonade. Soak hard-boiled eggs in beet juice to make pretty pink devilled eggs, and enjoy alongside colourful watermelon radishes or fresh slices of pink watermelon.At Mosi Bakery Café and Gelateria, Stefano Mosi is riffing on his Italian grandfather’s traditional gelato recipe when he makes his sakura gelato, with powdered dried blossoms imported from Japan and local Silk Road cherry blossom tea. The award-winning gelato maker — who will compete in the world gelato championships in next year — developed his sakura gelato recipe while living in Maui. With a bare blush of pink and a lightly spicy, floral and herbal flavour, it makes a unique hanami dessert.

Or you might try something from the Chimoto Japanese dessert café, pastel-coloured Hanami Dango sticky rice ball sweets and glistening Raindrop jelly cakes, washed down with a refreshing iced sakura tea, made with cherry blossom syrup.

If something stronger is in order — and it often is at a Hanami Picnic in Japan — there’s Sheringham Distillery’s Kazuki Gin, a unique cherry blossom and citrusy, yuzu-inflused spirit, the petals imported from Japan, with green tea and flowers added from local Westholme Tea Farm. Its soft floral aromas reflect the spring season, and make it the perfect base for a Hanami party cocktail.


SAKURA SIGHTINGS

With the streets awash in pink blossoms, the petals literally blanketing ground like snow, you know it’s spring in Victoria.

Flowering cherry and plum trees explode in pretty shades, from barely blush to fiery fuchsia, a sign of the city’s changing seasons.

According to Tourism Victoria, “a mature cherry or plum tree can boast anywhere from 250,000 to 750,000 blossoms” and with their on-line spring blossoms map, you can literally see millions of them as you stroll our city streets. Though there’s no formal cherry blossom festival in Victoria, it’s “an amazing place for blossoms with thousands of Prunus (flowering cherry and plum) trees in bloom” over a four-month period. Stroll the neighborhoods of James Bay and Fairfield to admire the blooms — south Turner Street, View Street, Moss Street and Trutch are notable, with rare weeping sakura at the foot of Belleville Street. The flowering trees along Fisgard Street in Chinatown make a colourful backdrop.



Or you may simply have a blooming specimen to admire in your own back yard.

Both cherry and plum trees bloom in successive waves, but did you know each blossom has a unique meaning in Japanese culture? The fleeting Sakura, so delicate and fragile, is a metaphor for life itself, a beautiful gift that must be appreciated while it lasts. The plum blossom, or Ume, blooms earlier, in the last cold days of winter, so symbolizes perseverance and hope, a flower that thrives in adverse conditions.

It’s why Daniela Cubelic of Silk Road offers both floral Sakura cherry blossom and sour cherry-infused teas in her lineup, and uses a graphic red and white plum blossom in her logo.

“Cherry blossoms celebrate youth, impermanence and fleeting beauty, the beauty of the moment,” says Cubelic, “while the plum blossom is a symbol of inner resilience, strength and vitality which goes beyond age. It’s about understanding that you can create inner radiance that becomes outward beauty.”

So take time to admire the beauty of our iconic cherry blossoms and host a Hanami picnic, that’s pretty in pink!


RECIPES:


SAKURA ICED TEA

Here’s a summery sakura cocktail for sipping on the deck, created by Veneto bartender Mike Norbury. For a refreshing zero-proof cocktail, Norbury recommends using Sheringham’s new Lumette! alt-gin in place of the Kazuki Gin.


60 mL Sheringham Kazuki Gin

15 mL Fresh Lemon Juice

15 mL Orgeat syrup (Almond Milk, Sugar, Orange blossom)

2 drops Ms Better Bitters Mt Fuji Bitters (Peach, Yuzu)

Chilled Silk Road Sour Cherry or Quench Tea

Lemon wheel to garnish

Combine gin, lemon juice, Orgeat syrup and bitters in a tall glass. Add ice, top with chilled tea and garnish with lemon.

Makes 1 serving.


KUSHIYAKI

Mini bites of chicken (yakatori), salmon and tofu are perfect for the picnic bento box. Chef Moto Nozawa shares this recipe for making these simple skewers.


Chicken Yakatori:

1 pound chicken tenders

Marinade:

½ cup soy sauce

½ cup mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine)

¼ cup sugar


Sweet Soy Marinated Salmon:

1 pound boneless salmon filet

Marinade:

¼ cup soy sauce

2 Tbsp mirin

2 Tbsp apple juice

2 Tbsp sesame oil

2 Tbsp canola oil

2 Tbsp sugar


Sweet Miso-glazed Tofu:

1 pound tofu

Marinade:

2 Tbsp miso

3 Tbsp sugar

2 tsp mirin

2 tsp sake or white wine


Cut the chicken, salmon and tofu into bite sized, 1-inch cubes and set in separate dishes. Combine the marinade ingredients for each, separately, in a saucepan and simmer over low heat until reduced by half. Cool the marinades, and pour over the proteins. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.


Soak small bamboo skewers in water. Cut chicken, salmon and tofu into bite-sized pieces and place two pieces on each skewer (add a small grape tomato with the tofu if you like).


Pre-heat oven to 350˚F. Bake or grill chicken for 5-7 minutes, or until the juices are clear. Bake or grill salmon for 3-5 minutes. Bake or grill Tofu for 2 minutes.


TOFU POCKETS WITH SMOKED SALMON

This is a popular west coast variation on a simple Japanese snack. The slightly sweet Abura age fried tofu (aka bean curd) pockets are available in tins. Simply filled with seasoned rice and topped with cold smoked salmon and avocado, and a few sprigs of fresh pea shoots or other sprouts, they makes a perfect portable lunch. No smoked salmon? Substitute cooked wild Atlantic shrimp — an Ocean Wise choice — or try tuna poke from the fishmonger.


Seasoned tofu pockets (abura age)

1 cup short grain sushi rice, cooked

sushi vinegar (mirin)

¼ cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon wasabi powder or paste

1 avocado, chopped

5 oz. cold smoked salmon, sliced

pea shoots, microgreens or sprouts


Place the rice in a colander. Rinse the rice in running water until starch is washed away and water runs clean. Drain well. Place rice in a pot, with ¾ cup water. Cover the pot, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer 30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow rice to steam for 30 minutes.

Transfer rice to a bowl, and toss with a large spatula to cool. Drizzle with 1-2 tablespoons of mirin, tossing the rice until it absorbs the vinegar.

Whisk the wasabi powder or paste into the mayonnaise.

For each pocket, form 2 tablespoons of the seasoned rice into an oval ball and set inside each pocket. Top with a dollop of wasabi mayonnaise. Arrange sliced avocado and smoked salmon on top. Garnish with sprouts or micro-greens.

Makes 8 pockets

YUKARI RICE BALL

Chef Takashi Ito of AURA restaurant at the Inn at Laurel Point shared this recipe for onigiri, Japanese rice balls, that are popular for picnics. I found a package of Mishima Yukari among the “rice condiments” section at Fujiya grcery in Victoria. A slightly tart and savoury combination of perilla (red shiso leaf), salt and sugar, it’s is delicious with rice or cold noodles, and adds a lovely colour to this rice dish.


1 cup Japanese short grain rice

1 cup water

3 tbsp Yukari powder (you can purchase at Fujiya)

55ml sushi vinegar (use purchased sushi vinegar/mirin or make it from scratch using the recipe that follows)

Sushi vinegar:

40ml Rice vinegar

10ml Granulated sugar

5ml Salt

Place the rice in a sieve and was under cold running water until water runs clear. Place the rice in a saucepan and cover with plenty of water — set aside to soak for 30 minutes.

Drain the rice well and return it to the saucepan. Add 1 cup of cold water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 30 minutes.

Dump the cooked, warm rice into a large bowl and add sushi vinegar, stirring with a spatula until the vinegar is absorbed. Add the yukari powder and mi to combine.

With wet hands (to prevent the rice from sticking), form the seasoned rice into 1-inch balls while still warm. Makes 12 onigiri.

QUICK PICKLED SPOT PRAWNS

Serve Chef Ito’s lightly pickled prawns with rice balls and mixed baby greens, dressed in sweet soy and onion dressing. The light pickle, he says, helps to preserve the prawns for a picnic.


1 pound BC spot prawn or humpback prawn, shell on

Water

Salt

2 Tbsp (30ml) water

4 tsp (20ml) rice vinegar

2 tsp (10ml) sugar

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spot prawns and cook until they turn pink and are just cooked, about 5 minutes. Drain and add to a bowl of ice water to chill.

Peel prawns and set in a bowl.

Meanwhile, combine the water, rice vinegar and sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves.

Add to the prawns and set aside to pickle for 20 minutes before serving.


RASPBERRY GATEAUX DE VOYAGE (TRAVEL CAKE)

Kimberly Vy, the talented pastry chef at AURA restaurant at the Inn at Laurel Point, shares this pretty pink cake to bake and take on your Hanami picnic. Make it in a loaf pan or in small individual pans and glaze with pink hibiscus icing for a pretty in pink presentation.

Look for dried hibiscus tea (a.k.a. Agua de Jamaica) at Latin American grocery, Mexican House of Spice, downtown on Douglas St.


Makes 2 8X4-inch loaves, 4-6 miniature loaves or 12-14 Financier Moulds


Cake:

1 cup + 2 Tbsp unsalted butter (1 1/3 cup if making hibiscus butter – see method below), melted

8 egg yolks

2 ½ tsp lemon zest

1 ½ cups + 2 Tbsp caster (superfine) sugar, divided

4 egg whites

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

2 ¾ tsp baking powder

2 ¼ cups + 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour

2 ½ Tbsp loose hibiscus tea

1 ¼ cup fresh or frozen raspberries

½ cup + 1 Tbsp finely chopped white chocolate

¾ cup hibiscus flower, finely chopped


Hibiscus Glaze:

¾ cup water

3 Tbsp loose leaf hibiscus tea

1 ½ cup powdered sugar


Garnish:

Finely chopped hibiscus flowers


You can use plain, unsalted butter or, for a pink cake, first infuse the butter with hibiscus tea. To make the hibiscus butter, heat 1 1/3 cups of butter in a saucepan until melted, then add about ¼-1/3 cup of dried hibiscus flowers. Heat together on low for 5 minutes, then let steep for 5 minutes more to release additional colour. Strain the butter through a fine sieve, pressing to release as much as possible. You should have 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of hibiscus butter.

To make the cake, in the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the egg yolks, lemon zest and ¾ cup of the caster sugar until light and creamy.

Separate the eggs. Separately beat/whisk the egg whites with the cream of tartar. When a soft peak is reached, slowly add the remaining ¾ cup + 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, beating to create a stiff meringue.

Fold the meringue into the yolk mixture to lighten.

Combine the baking powder and flour and sieve into the batter, folding to combine.

Warm the melted butter (or hibiscus butter) and stir in a small amount of the batter into the butter, before stirring it into the remaining mixture.

Fold the raspberries and white chocolate into the batter – if using frozen raspberries, the batter should turn a nice pink colour.

Spoon batter into buttered 8X4-inch loaf pans (or mini loaf pans), and bake at 170 C/338 F for 30-40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean, and cake springs back when pressed.

Meanwhile, make the glaze. Boil the water and pour over hibiscus tea to brew, the colour and flavor will be very concentrated. Once the tea has cooled, pour through a mesh strainer and set aside.

Sift powdered sugar into a mixing bowl. Slowly whisk in the brewed and cooled hibiscus tea 1 tbsp at a time. Continue to whisk until glaze is smooth. The glaze should run off the whisk in a thick flowing ribbon, if the glaze is too thin, add more icing sugar. If the glaze is too thick, add more tea. This will depend on taste and aesthetic preferences.

Cool cakes and remove from the pan(s). Place loaves on a rack and pour glaze over top starting from one end and making your way down the center to the other. The glaze will drip nicely down the sides.

To create a more even glaze that covers all sides, add more tea to the glaze and pour over top in a side to side motion starting from one end and making your way down to the other. Tap again to ensure even coating.

Sprinkle chopped dried hibiscus flowers over top the glaze. Alternatively, you can place a segment or two along the corner, or down the center in a pattern. Tomake it a bit more chic you may also add some silver or gold leaf.

Let the glaze set for 30 minutes, it will harden to form a soft eggshell like coating.



This feature originally appeared in YAM magazine



copyright Cinda Chavich