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Momiji Tempura: Taking a bite out of Autumn

by Natalie Leon

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”

– Albert Camus

The Japanese phrase momijigari means red leaf hunting, a compound of momiji (red leaves, or maple leaves), and kari (hunting). Every autumn as the Ginkgos and Japanese maples (Acer japonica or Acer palmatum) begin to turn from green to shades of golden yellow, burnt orange and brilliant fiery scarlet people take part in this ancient tradition. Making excursions out into the countryside to hunt for the best views of the changing leaves is a Japanese past time that dates back to the Heian Period (794 – 1185).

This quintessential autumnal activity is so popular that Japan produces the koyo zensen, an annual autumn foliage forecast to help people plan their leaf hunting activities. The first leaves begin to change in September in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, the front then moves south down the length of Japan. The momiji is to autumn in Japan as the sakura (cherry blossom) is to spring; it is the iconic symbol of autumn in Japan.

In late November 2019, I went on a leaf hunting adventure of my own, to discover the most emblematic sweet of the season, momiji tempura. A popular delicacy made in the town of Minoh City, in northwestern Osaka. Minoh is famous for two things, its delicious autumnal snack and its stunning waterfall surrounded by maple leaves, which inspired it, over 1300 years ago. The idea of making tempura out of the delicate maple leaves was first conceived by Shugendō practitioners, mountain-dwelling priests, who meditated beneath waterfalls and were so moved by the outstanding natural beauty of the area, that they created this wagashi (sweet). Shugendō is an amalgamation of the Shintō and Buddhist religions that dates back to the Japanese Heian Period.

Momiji tempura is made by pickling yellow maple leaves for a year, which are then coated in flour, sugar and sesame seeds and deep-fried, transforming the star-shaped leaves into a crunchy, slightly nutty and very addictive snack. Like many of Japan’s many regional delicacies, momiji tempura is a local speciality and difficult to find outside Minoh. Takido Street, the road that snakes up towards Minoh Falls is lined with small stands where you can watch women skilfully making fresh momiji tempura, coating the leaves in batter and then frying them. As they float on the surface of the oil like ochiba, fallen leaves on the surface of a lake. They are the perfect snack for your walk through the park, purchase a bag to take with you on your hike, and then follow the path that weaves upwards towards the waterfall. Along the way, you’ll find the perfect spot to sit and enjoy your tempura while you revel in the beauty of the changing leaves.

Seasonality is a fundamental tenement of Japanese cuisine, which celebrates the passage of time by utilising the best regional ingredients of the changing seasons. Traditional Japanese meals consist of several small plates. Each of which is exquisitely presented, designed to be a feast for the eyes as well as the palette. Dishes are traditionally garnished with seasonal plants and flowers, presented in vessels whose colours and design complement their contents perfectly. Making maple leaves into tempura is a way to honour their ephemeral beauty. Momiji tempura is something you eat with all of your senses. You can enjoy the preserved shape of the delicate leaves, the sweet smell of the fried batter and the nutty taste of the sesame seeds. And finally, the satisfying crunch as you pierce the outer shell, which is reminiscent of the crunch of fallen autumn leaves beneath your feet.

Guest writer: Natalie Leon

Natalie Leon is a Japanologist, writer and researcher based in London. She holds an MA in Japanese Studies and studied East Asian art at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Natalie is passionate about all things Japanese, especially seasonal culture, tea and kimono. She loves to cook with homegrown or foraged ingredients and edible flowers.

You can follow her seasonal Japanese microblog on Instagram @Sakura_Sister_

Photography credits:

Kimono portrait by Stasia Matsumoto

Autumn portrait by Akiko DuPont

Soul Food September:

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