Spring in Texas means vast fields of bluebonnets, rippling in the wind like waves in the ocean. In Japan, all eyes are on a different sort of flower, turning the air itself into a sea of petals. Sakura are reaching peak season right now across central Honshu, the main island which includes the hot spots of Tokyo and Kyoto. It’s the most popular time to visit either metropolis, heralding in a crush of tourists from around the world.
Their aesthetic attraction needs no explanation, but there’s a deeper meaning that strikes at the core of Japanese culture. Their fleeting beauty illustrates that nothing in this world is permanent; blink and you’ll miss it. This philosophy is called “mono no aware.” Translated as “an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera”, it’s also a vivid reminder to live life in the moment, or else it will pass you by.
Don’t let another sakura season pass you by. This spring, even if there are no blossoms to be found near you, host your own personal hanami and watch as sakura sushi blossoms on your plate.
Ingredients You Need To Know
I’m going to assume everyone understands the basics of sushi by now. Aside from the usual suspects, these pretty pink rolls call for a few specialty items:
- Sakura powder: Many so-called sakura snacks cheat and use cherry flavoring with red dye. Real sakura blossoms taste nothing like their namesake fruit. Instead, the petals have a delicate floral taste, subtly sweet and lightly sour. Dried sakura blossom powder can be found online or in Japanese markets. If you want to replicate the experience with more accessible ingredients, you can swap 1 cup of the water for beet juice and add 1 teaspoon rosewater instead.
- Umeboshi: Most people simply define these shriveled fruits as pickled plums, but there’s so much more to them than that. Unripe green plums are first fermented, introducing beneficial cultures and probiotics, then gently sun-dried, and sometimes infused with red shiso leaf. They’re powerfully sour, salty, and slightly bitter. It may be an acquired taste for some; I hated them in my early years but can’t get enough now. The best umeboshi will be sold refrigerated, as shelf-stable options will undoubtedly have added preservatives.
- Shiso: Also called perilla, ooba, Japanese basil, or beefsteak, there’s no substitution for this unique green herb. The broad, jagged leaves are a member of the mint family, although if you ask me, they have a flavor reminiscent of toasted cumin and sharp citrus.
How Do You Make Sakura Sushi?
The unconventional shape may throw you at first. Don’t overthink it! Rather than taking a complicated mosaic approach to building a whole new art form, these sushi rolls take shape exactly the same way as your classic hosomaki.
- Use a thin layer of rice to cover only the bottom 1/4 of the nori. Layer three leaves of shiso and three pitted umeboshi on top.
- Roll it up as tightly as possible, taking care not to rip the nori. Seal the end with a light dab of water across the edge.
- Use a very sharp knife to cut the roll into pieces. Six is ideal; you only need five to make each flower, so consider the messiest one a mid-prep snack!
- Take each individual piece of sushi and use your hands to model it into a rough heart shape; pinch one end into a point, and press a divot into the opposite side, forming two bumps.
- Repeat with all the pieces.
- Arrange your sushi on a plate with the points facing inward in a circle. Garnish with an extra leaf of shiso and pickled ginger if desired.
Naturally, the best way to enjoy sakura sushi is outside on a picnic blanket while gazing skyward towards the pink petals, falling like snow. I’m happy to report that they taste every bit as good eaten inside on a cold, gloomy day, too. No matter what spring looks like for you, it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate, revive your spirit, and begin the season with a full stomach.