5 Japanese Foods to Try This Autumn

Photo credit: @seiya_maeda on Unsplash

As I write this, we have just officially entered autumn of 2022!

In Japan, this was marked by 秋分の日 (shuubun no hi): Autumnal Equinox Day, which this year took place on Friday 23rd September. I actually held an event to celebrate this day and its traditions last week, which is something I think I'll do again next year. Find out more here.

If, like me, you're enjoying settling into the cooler weather and spotting the odd autumn leaf starting to show its colours, I hope you'll enjoy today's intro to some great autumn foods I think anyone visiting Japan at this time of year should try. As a special bonus, I've even included some recipes for in case you want to try making some of these foods yourself!

In no particular order, here are the foods we're going to be talking about. Feel free to click the links below if you'd like to jump directly to any part of this post:

  1. 栗 (kuri)
  2. かぼちゃ (kabocha)
  3. おでん (oden)
  4. おはぎ (ohagi)
  5. 焼き芋 (yaki-imo)

1. 栗 (kuri)

栗 (kuri), or chestnuts, are a fairly common sign in Japan at this time of year.

While you may even spot 栗 (kuri) being sold in supermarkets, my favourite place to find them is along the side of 商店街 (shōtengai): shopping streets that form a key part of daily life in many Japanese towns and cities.

  • Fun fact: did you know that Japan's longest 商店街 (shōtengai) is Tenjinbashisuji Shōtengai in Osaka? This single street stretches a whole 2.6km, boasting over 600 shops along its length! Find out more here.
Blog_Autumn Foods_Kuri

Depending where you're from, 栗 (kuri) might not sound like a particularly unusual snack, but I always really enjoyed picking a red paper bag of these up on my way home from work while living in Osaka.

If you want to take a step up from eating chestnuts そのまま (sono mama - just as they are), check out these two recipes for 栗ご飯 (kuri gohan - chestnut rice):

Note: you'll spot me giving links to both Just One Cookbook and Cookpad more than once in this post. Neither are affiliated in any way - I just find their recipes easy to follow!

2. かぼちゃ (kabocha)

Next up: かぼちゃ (kabocha) - a word you may have come across being used in English for a specific type of winter squash with a green outer skin and bright orange inside.

Also known as "Japanese pumpkin" or "Japanese squash", かぼちゃ (kabocha) is a wonderful vegetable to incorporate into your meals at this time of year.

Blog_Autumn Foods_kabocha

In Japan, the season (旬 - shun) of a food is something that is still often observed - at least compared with the UK, that is. In other words, it fairly common for restaurants and even those cooking at home to adjust their menus according to the season. As such, you're likely to find that foods like かぼちゃ (kabocha) are a) more readily available and b) considerably cheaper when they are in season.

When I was last living in Japan in 2017, this was partly what sparked my love affair with かぼちゃ (kabocha). I discovered it was delicious in Japanese curry, and even tried out some recipes that I picked up at my local supermarket.

A really simple かぼちゃ (kabocha) dish that you can either try while in Japan or have a go at making yourself is かぼちゃの煮物 (kabocha no nimono - simmered kabocha):

Hint: the Japanese recipe linked above actually doesn't include any katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), ginger or salt. Instead, the dressing it recommends contains equal parts (2tbsp) of soy sauce, sugar, cooking sake and mirin - potentially a bit simpler!

3. おでん (oden)

Moving away from ingredients and into more into meal territory: if you've been to Japan before, you'll almost certainly have come across おでん (oden) - whether you know it or not!

おでん (oden) is a type of 鍋物 (nabemono), which literally translates to "pot thing" - in other words, something you cook in just one pot. If you've heard the word 鍋 (nabe) before, it may be because you've come across 鍋 (nabe), which is Japanese hot pot. Did you know that the word 鍋 (nabe) also just means "pot" or "pan"?

Blog_Autumn Foods_oden

While there are many different kinds of 鍋物 (nabemono), from ちゃんこ鍋 (chanko nabe) - the traditional fair of sumo wrestlers - to すき焼き (sukiyaki), おでん (oden) is best known for containing ingredients such as:

  • 大根 - daikon
  • たまご (tamago) - egg (usually boiled)
  • 餅入り巾着 (mochi iri kinchaku) - rice cake in a "drawstring purse" (tofu pouch)
  • 牛すじ (gyuu suji) - beef sinew/tendons
  • はんぺん (hanpen) - pounded fish cake

Note: this list is taken from this Japanese article about popular (and recommended) oden ingredients.

If none of the above sounds appetising, don't worry - there are plenty of other potential foods that can be added to おでん (oden), including vegetables! However, it can be a somewhat fishy dish, leading to some people dubbing it "fish cake stew" in English.

The reason you may have come across おでん (oden) before in Japan is that during the colder months, it is commonly served in konbini (convenience stores) up and down the country, generally placed pretty much right in front of the counter.

While personally I've never been particularly tempted by konbini おでん (oden), it is a very easy way to pick up some hot food, and just like in a restaurant, you can select which specific ingredients you'd like to sample.

If you'd like to try your hand at making おでん (oden) for yourself this autumn, check out these two recipes:

4. おはぎ (ohagi)

Ready for something sweet? My next recommendation is おはぎ (ohagi).

An iconic autumnal treat that became popular in the late Edo period (1603-1867), ohagi are sweetened mochi (sticky rice cakes) covered in red adzuki beans. If you're not a fan of adzuki, you may want to think carefully before skipping on them, as they are said to protect from calamity and ward off evil!

Blog_Autumn Foods_ohagi

If you're a particularly ardent lover of 和菓子 (wagashi - traditional Japanese confections), you may be wondering what the different between おはぎ (ohagi) and 牡丹餅 (botamochi) is. After all, these two foods look basically identical.

While it appears there are a few ideas out there about the difference between おはぎ (ohagi) and 牡丹餅 (botamochi), a popular theory is that the key difference is their seasonality, with おはぎ (ohagi) being the name for this food in the autumn and 牡丹餅 (botamochi) its name in the spring.

If this sounds arbitrary, it may interest you to know that おはぎ (ohagi) is believed to be named after the bush clover (萩 - hagi, pictured) that blooms during the autumn in Japan, while 牡丹餅 (botamochi) takes its name from the tree peony (牡丹 - botan), which blooms in the spring.

Whatever the true story behind おはぎ (ohagi) vs 牡丹餅 (botamochi), this is another food to keep an eye out for during any autumn trip to Japan!

For those who can't wait, here are two recipes you can check out:

5. 焼き芋 (yaki-imo)

Last but not least, it's time to talk about what is surely one of the most popular autumn foods in Japan: 焼き芋 (yaki-imo)!

A quick language note before we talk more about this amazing food:

  • 焼き芋 (yaki-imo) translates to "baked potato", but in Japan generally refers to baked sweet potato
  • Sweet potato itself is called サツマイモ (satsuma-imo)
Blog_Autumn Foods_yakiimo

So far so underwhelmed?

Let me introduce you to just a few of the exciting ways in which 焼き芋 (yaki-imo) can blow your mind with its sweet autumnal goodness...

1. The 焼き芋 (yaki-imo) Food Truck

Probably the common way you're likely to encounter 焼き芋 (yaki-imo) is being sold out of little food trucks like the one in the video below.

Have a listen to the video and see if you can hear the vendor calling out "potatoes!" -「お芋!」(o-imo).

Keen to try making your own Japanese-style 焼き芋 (yaki-imo)? Check out this in-depth recipe by (you guessed it) Just One Cookbook.

2. Sweet Potato Ice Cream

One of the first unusual food experiences I remember having during my year abroad in Japan back in 2014-2015 was trying sweet potato ice cream. I don't think it had ever crossed my mind that these two flavours could be combined, but I have to say, it was pretty good!

If you're wondering whether the ice cream flavour is that of 焼き芋 (yaki-imo) or サツマイモ (satuma-imo), the answer is you can get both!

When it comes to the non-baked variety, even global brands such as Häagen-Dazs have recently dipped their toes into the world of sweet potato-flavoured ice cream. (Read one review here.)

3. 焼き芋ブリュレ フラペチーノ (yaki-imo buryure furapechiino)

If you're on top of your katakana game, you'll already know what I'm about to say: Starbucks in Japan has sweet potato frappucinno! (Not a food, I know, but I couldn't resist!)

While I'm not generally a huge fan of Starbucks, I do have to give them points for adapting their menu to the Japanese market. If you think you can handle the sugar rush, why not give it a go?

You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.

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