While chestnuts are generally thought of as a winter treat in the United States, in Japan they are more closely associated with autumn. Chestnuts, or kuri in Japanese, are a quintessential autumnal treat in Japan, as traditional as pumpkin pie is here in the United States. They begin appearing at markets across the country in late September and make an excellent garnish or main ingredient in many delicious sweets and seasonal dishes.
One popular hearty autumnal meal is kuri-gohan, or chestnut rice. This simple recipe, made with chestnuts; salt; water; and rice, has a nice aromatic quality that for many Japanese is intrinsically linked with autumn and memories of childhood. This dish can be served hot or cold, and is perfect for making onigiri rice balls to take on outings to see the beautiful autumn foliage that Japan is known for.
There are also many ways Japanese chefs use the sweet chestnut. For example, fresh chestnuts often make their way into limited time only desserts served in bakeries around the country. At festivals, street vendors roast chestnuts in large hand-cranked drums, vying for festival-goers’ attention with the alluring aroma. Even when grocery shopping, shoppers are presented with an assortment of various chestnut flavored snacks and candies on store shelves.
Chestnuts are also preserved as kuri-ama-ni, or candied chestnuts, which are boiled and topped with a sweet syrup before being stored for later use. Some dishes that make use of Japanese candied chestnuts, like kuri-manju, can be eaten year-round, but are found most prominently during the autumn months. Manju is a traditional kind of confectionery that can be steamed or baked, and kuri-manju are filled with shiroan, a sweet bean paste, and chestnuts. Sometimes they are even made to look like chestnuts as well. Another dish famous that uses candied chestnuts is kuri-kinton. This is a traditional part of the osechi-ryori served during the New Year’s celebration.