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In Japan, Giving Thanks For An Abundant Harvest

The Japanese holiday called Kinro-kansha-no-hi is a celebration of Thanksgiving for an abundant harvest and all the hard-working people who help bring food to the table. Delicacies featuring fish and vegetables are served at Kinro-kansha-no-hi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo.

The Japanese holiday called Kinro-kansha-no-hi is a celebration of Thanksgiving for an abundant harvest and all the hard-working people who help bring food to the table. Delicacies featuring fish and vegetables are served at Kinro-kansha-no-hi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful occasion for getting together with family and friends to share food and make up for all of the lost time that we have been apart. The spirit of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was the sharing of precious harvest and honoring the relationship between the Plymouth Colonists and native population — family and friends. That spirit of sharing is intact today, and though some of the ingredients at Thanksgiving feasts have changed, some have remained.

Giving thanks for abundance

Varieties of squash -- a Native American ingredient still used in traditional Thanksgiving dishes -- can be found at farmers' markets like this one at Union Square in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Varieties of squash — a Native American ingredient still used in traditional Thanksgiving dishes — can be found at farmers’ markets like this one at Union Square in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

In Japan, we have a similar annual event at around the same time, called Kinro-kansha-no-hi, which means “a day to offer great thanks to all the hard-working people (who have contributed to bring food to our table).” This holiday falls on Nov. 23 and originates in the ancient worldwide autumn ritual of thanking the gods who enabled an abundant harvest while also protecting the people throughout the year. Japanese people are obsessed with excellent food, but there is no universally served meal analogous to the American “turkey with all the ‘fixins.’ ” This is why:

Seafood delicacies

Whole fluke from Blue Moon at Union Square Market in New York City deserves to be served sashimi. The freshness of fish is first class. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Whole fluke from Blue Moon at Union Square Market in New York City deserves to be served sashimi. The freshness of fish is first class. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

November is the month in Japan during which nature brings many varied delicacies from the sea, the rivers, the fields and the mountains. And depending on where people live in Japan (recall that Japan is a long and narrow country extending from far north to far south surrounded by a long coast line), the delicacies of the season differ in each region.

My mother prepared Kinro-kansha-no-hi dishes using the quality seasonal ingredients available to her, and these were also my father’s favorites. Seafood included snow crab, amberjack, kinki (a small red fish a little like the scorpionfish in bouillabaisse) and fluke.

Eggplant appetizers

There is a saying in Japan, "Don't treat your daughter-in-law to (delicious ) autumn eggplant." Some say this shows the ill nature of mothers-in-law, who think that autumn eggplant is too good for their daughters-in-law. Another, less harsh interpretation is that giving a daughter-in-law a seedless eggplant is bad luck--it might keep her from getting pregnant. This appetizer of fried eggplant served with miso sauce is heaven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

There is a saying in Japan, “Don’t treat your daughter-in-law to (delicious ) autumn eggplant.” Some say this shows the ill nature of mothers-in-law, who think that autumn eggplant is too good for their daughters-in-law. Another, less harsh interpretation is that giving a daughter-in-law a seedless eggplant is bad luck–it might keep her from getting pregnant. This appetizer of fried eggplant served with miso sauce is heaven. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Along with the seafood, turnip, daikon, enoki mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves and sweet potato never failed to appear at our table. Appetizer dishes such as eggplant and miso sauce also were served.

Dashi

Simmered and flavored carrot and Japanese turnip, baked and fried kabocha squash, fried eggplant and string bean mingle with each other in flavored Japanese dashi broth. Locally available, seasonal vegetables frequently end up in this preparation in my kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Simmered and flavored carrot and Japanese turnip, baked and fried kabocha squash, fried eggplant and string bean mingle with each other in flavored Japanese dashi broth. Locally available, seasonal vegetables frequently end up in this preparation in my kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

I always remember the sweet potatoes that were simmered in a lightly flavored Japanese dashi stock. My mother never changed the way she made her sweet potatoes, but every year we found them tasting better than before. It seemed like playing the piano; it gets better as you practice.

After moving to New York from Japan, I began to join my brother-in-law’s Thanksgiving dinner. Peter is a great cook. He roasts a large turkey to juicy and tender perfection, makes all the traditional side dishes and some wonderful pies to end the meal. Early on I suggested to Peter that I could contribute a real Japanese dish or two to add to his very organized Thanksgiving meal. But he has never shown an interest in my offer, so I stopped asking. It was for me to learn how to enjoy this very American event. And I do enjoy it!

As you know, Japanese love to embrace American culture. Recently the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner began gradually invading my homeland. One popular Japanese website posts more than 80 American Thanksgiving recipes, including how to roast a turkey, how to make cranberry relish and how to bake pecan and pumpkin pies. The size of the turkey mentioned in such recipes is about 13 to 15 pounds. An oven in a Japanese home is one-third to one-half the size of an American oven, so this is the largest bird that can be accommodated. This also was the size of turkeys available in America in 1930s. Today, breeding techniques have increased the size of these birds up to 30 pounds.

Maybe because I never learned to prepare traditional American Thanksgiving dishes, around this time of the year I entertain family and friends as my mother did by preparing dishes from the local seasonal harvest.

Sweet endings

Juice made from fresh pomegranate is naturally very sweet. It became a good pair with my Japanese-style, rather dry steamed azuki bean cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Juice made from fresh pomegranate is naturally very sweet. It became a good pair with my Japanese-style, rather dry steamed azuki bean cake. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The bounty of the autumn harvest and offering thanks to nature and the people who contributed to bringing the meal to our table is truly a celebration to be shared with our loved ones.

Kinpira

Traditional kinpira is made with gobo (burdock). Here is my kinpira with locally available sulsify (a cousin of burdock), parsnip, carrot and kale. This version is even better than the original one. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Traditional kinpira is made with gobo (burdock). Here is my kinpira with locally available sulsify (a cousin of burdock), parsnip, carrot and kale. This version is even better than the original one. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

(From The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo)

When you prepare this dish for a guest who can not tolerate gluten, eliminate the shoyu and use all gluten free tamari. Make sure that it is 100% soybean tamari without wheat. Tamari makes the prepared marinating broth a bit darker in color.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 3 minutes

Refrigeration time: 2 to 3 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons canola oil

3 ounces salsify or gobo (burdock), julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths

2 ounces carrot, julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths

2 ounces parsnip, julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths

Some kale (optional)

2 tablespoons mirin

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon shoyu (soy sauce)

1 teaspoon tamari

2 tablespoons white sesame seeds, toasted

1/3 teaspoon shichimi togarashi

Directions

  1. Heat a large skillet and add the canola oil. When the oil is heated, add the salsify or burdock, and cook, stirring, until it is well coated with oil. Add the carrot and parsnip and cook for 2 minutes, stirring.
  2. Add 3 tablespoons water, the kale (if using), mirin and sugar, and cook until almost all the liquid is absorbed, stirring. Add the soy sauce and tamari and cook for 30 seconds. Add the white sesame seeds and shichimi togarashi.
  3. Transfer the vegetables in a bowl and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for later serving. The prepared kinpira tastes best 2 to 3 hours after preparation, or after overnight refrigeration.

Main photo: The Japanese holiday called Kinro-kansha-no-hi is a celebration of Thanksgiving for an abundant harvest and all the hard-working people who help bring food to the table. Delicacies featuring fish and vegetables are served at Kinro-kansha-no-hi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo.



Zester Daily contributor Hiroko Shimbo, a widely acclaimed chef-consultant and Japanese cooking instructor, is the author of "Hiroko's American Kitchen," "The Japanese Kitchen" (published as "La Cocina Japonesa" in Spain) and "The Sushi Experience."

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