Be a limited-edition epicurean with one of the many sakura-flavoured foods and beverages this hanami season.
Every Japanophile knows that spring is cherry blossom season, the time of year when Japanese gather for hanami (花見), or “flower viewing” parties. These celebrations are meant to honour the brief and beautiful life of cherry and plum blossoms, though the cherry is king—so much so that the word for flower, hana, is often used to refer specifically to the sakura (桜), or “cherry blossom.” But the Japanese devotion to sakura goes well beyond gazing at these short-lived blooms, into the all-consuming practice of eating and drinking sakura-flavoured treats. Throughout March and April, these tasty goodies start hitting shelves all across Japan, from the most gourmet boutiques to the corner convenience store.
So what, exactly, can you make out of sakura? Historically, sakura were only consumed in tea form, in a simple concoction of plain water boiled with one or two whole flowers. Eventually, people began getting more adventurous, and now some of the more “traditional” consumables include sakura-flavoured mochi (a sweet dessert of red bean and pink mochi gorgeously accented with a salted green sakura leaf), manju (another bean paste treat wrapped in steamed dough and topped with a dried flower), or yokan and kanten (jelly treats often festively mixed with petals inside). Savoury traditional dishes include sakura onigiri, slightly salty rice balls made by cooking rice in sakura-soaked water and pressed with some reconstituted flowers. They’re the perfect portable treat for a hanami party at the park.
But sakura comestibles are not just for traditionalists. These days, you can buy everything from limited-release Sakura pocky to the seasonal Häagen-Dazs Sakura An ice cream, which mixes sakura flavours with a sweet and salty red bean paste. Starbucks has a whole themed lineup, including Sakura Strawberry pink Mochi Frapuccino and Sakura Chiffon Cake. if you’re vacationing in Japan this month, you could even pick up some Sakura Strawberry KitKat as a souvenir for your unlucky friends stuck at home. A less giftable, but very popular sakura snack is the Yukimi Daifuku, a mochi-wrapped ice cream ball with red bean, which you can eat immediately on a little plastic stick. Just take a photo of that one for your friends back home, posing with your cute order of McDonald’s sakura-salt fries.
If you’re more into drinkables but too lazy to boil your own blossoms, lipton makes sakura tea bags, and Dotour offers premium roast Coffee Sakura, which smells just like the trees. The makers of ramune also offer a sakura cola and, for the more adventurous type, sakura shrimp cider. But don’t feel left out if you’re unable to make it to Japan this month, because you can just make your own sakura items. Just order a bit of sakura essence, sakura bean paste or salt-pickled dried cherry blossoms, and these edible blooms will come to you!
Want to take part in this curious ower-eating phenomenon? Luckily, there are few rules in the sakura-flavoured realm of food and drinks, so all you need to do is take these three tips to heart:
DO be adventurous
Sakura curry? Sakura gum? Sakura potato chips? if you’re lucky enough to be in Japan, give them all a try!
DO NOT pick sakura from the actual trees
They only bloom for a week, so plucking them is both bad luck and bad form for other admirers.
DO try this at home
Don’t have sakura to cook with? Just use some food colouring to make pale pink treats in homage to the season.
Illustration by Chieko Watanabe