WHEN spring comes, Japanese chefs showcase the freshest bounty of nature in dishes made with petals of cherry and plum blossoms, wild greens, colorful vegetables and rich, fatty seafood.
"In Japan, some greens and vegetables are used distinctively used in spring, notably wild greens and bamboo shoots," says Tamura Mitsuru, Japanese executive chef at Shanghai Marriott Hotel City Centre.
Wild greens, butterbur (coltsfoot) and bracken fern (curled fiddleheads) are especially made into tempura or boiled and seasoned with soy sauce, according to Mitsuru.
Braken has its distinctive intense aroma and fibrous texture. Butterbur features a subtle flavor and crunchy celery-like texture.
Taranome, the budding shoot of the tara tree, is also distinctive in spring and can be either added into soup or made into tempura, says Ikushima Yuichiro, executive chef at Okura Garden Hotel Shanghai.
"The wild herbs are better cooked simply to highlight their original flavors, slightly bitter yet refreshing," says Yuichiro.
Bamboo shoots are popular in spring because of their fresh, delicate and crunchy taste. The mild vegetable is known for its versatility, tasting different as it absorbs flavors from various ingredients and seasonings, including meat, vegetables and soy sauce.
Seafood is another highlight of spring because fish and shrimp are fatty and sweet as they prepare to spawn, says Gary Wu, chef de cuisine at Grand Hyatt Shanghai.
Chef Wu recommends squid and mackerel while chef Yuichiro considers sea bream to be one of the most appetizing spring tastes.
Japanese cuisine, compared with other Asian food cultures, is known for placing more emphasis on presentation and using delicately painted tableware to capture the scenery of the season, in this case spring. The presentation emphasizes the harmony between food and nature.
Cherry blossoms are a key in springtime dishes due to the Japanese tradition of appreciating cherry blossoms, says chef Mitsuru.
"Fresh cherry and plum petals are used to decorate the dish. Vegetables in bright colors are cut to the shape of petals to create a similar effect," he says.
"Sea bream is popular in spring partly because of the cherry-pink color of the fish, which is also called cherry bream," says chef Yuichiro.
Furthermore, the dining ware is carefully selected, notably plates and bowls made of wood with porcelain interior painted with flower patterns, chef Wu says.
Last but not the least, the most delightful and authentic way to serve spring foods is under the blossoming sakura, so that both the beauty and fragrance of the food and flowers can be appreciated, chef Mitsuru says.
Here are some of the latest Japanese spring set menus and dishes found in Shanghai's five-star hotels.
Sakura sea bream kaiseki (980 yuan+15%)
This kaiseki (traditional multi-course) menu is only available in April, when the sea bream is at is best and rich in fat.
The menu is comprised of eight courses, of which three use sea bream as the main ingredient, including sea bream soup, sea bream grilled with bamboo shoot and fried sea bream.
The chef recommends the soup, saying the sea bream is simply flavored with pinches of salt and drops of soy sauce to highlight its original flavor.
Venue: Japanese Restaurant Yamazato, Okura Garden Hotel Shanghai
Address: 58 Maoming Rd S.
Cherry blossom lunch box (199 yuan+15%)
Showcasing a rich sampling of Japanese spring flavors, chef Mitsuru launches a two-layered lunch box available in March and April.
The first layer includes 18 bite-sized delicacies, presenting the flavors from light vegetables and seafood to rich chicken and beef. Recommendations include radish pickle, boiled taro, fried pumpkin, steamed egg roll, fried minced prawn, lily roots and grilled beef. Vegetables are cut into the shape of cherry petals. Lily root is best eaten last because it's slightly bitter and cleanses the palate.
The second layer is Premium Hana Chirashi, a colorful rice dish topped with six types of sashimi, including salmon, sea bream, amberjack and prawns together with avocado, mushrooms, yam, snow pea and eggs.
Teriyaki salmon is recommended by the chef. He uses a recipe combining sweet and savory flavor appealing to the Shanghai palate. The lunch set includes homemade green tea ice cream with a smooth, silky texture and long after-taste.
Venue: Inagiku, Shanghai Marriott Hotel City Center,
Address: 2/F, 555 Xizang Rd M.
Mackerel tataki with ponzu sauce (120 yuan+15%)
It's only in spring that mackerel has a texture that is fine and tender, yet firm. It is prepared tataki-style, slightly seared over a hot flame, then marinated in sauce and thinly sliced. The fish skin takes on a subtle smoky flavor and crispy texture; inside it's tender.
Ponzu sauce made from green onion, ginger paste and lemon vinegar adds tartness and refreshing flavor to the creamy fish meat. Lemon is squeezed on the fish when serving.
Halibut braised in sweet soy sauce (120 yuan+15%)
Halibut is known for its tender texture and delicate flavor. Soy sauce adds richness. Crunchy and refreshing spring vegetables are served.