Kuri (chestnuts) – a taste of tradition and history

With the discovery of kuri (chestnuts) at a Jomon-era archaeological site, we have learned that the Japanese consumed chestnuts from about 9,000 years ago. It is thought that chestnuts were a valuable foodstuff in those times. Back then, it seems that the Jomon culture harvested wild chestnuts, but investigations of the Sannai-Maruyama archaeological site in Aomori Prefecture have shown that cultivation also begun during the Jomon era, around 5,000 years ago or perhaps earlier.

There are many varieties of chestnuts, including ena, ibuki, kunimi, and arima. Each variety is distinguished by color, arrangement of spines, and flavor.

Autumn is chestnut season. There are a number of ways to enjoy chestnuts, but perhaps the most popular is kuri-gohan (steamed chestnuts and rice). With a combination of fluffy and chewy textures, the natural sweetness of chestnuts shines through. This is one example of a dish that reminds the Japanese of the changing seasons.

As autumn sets in, mont blancs (desserts based on pureed chestnuts) take the forefront on cake store shelves. It’s said that you can judge the overall quality of a cake store by sampling its mont blanc.

Another irresistibly sweet sensation of autumn are tenshin amaguri (Tianjin sweet roasted chestnuts), which are normally made from Chinese-produced shinaguri (Chinese chestnuts).

You might assume that “Tianjin” implies the chestnuts used for tenshin amaguri are produced in Tianjin, but in fact, here is an interesting history to the name. Actually, Tianjin is a city adjacent to Beijing, which has prospered as a major port city since long ago — the food was named after the port which first exported the chestnuts to Japan. The chestnuts themselves are harvested from mountainous areas of Hebei Province. In China, this style of chestnut is never associated with Tianjin, and is simply called “sweet roasted chestnut”. If you visit Chinatowns in Japan, you’ll find no shortage of “Tianjin” sweet roasted chestnuts sold by notoriously aggressive vendors — don’t feel pressured to buy more than you actually want!

By the way, chestnut trees blossom during Japan’s rainy season (tsuyudoki), giving off a peculiarly memorable musky, damp odor.