Part I-Making salt-cured cherry blossoms or sakura no shiozuke (桜花の塩漬けの作り方)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Shidare zakura no Shiozuke
It's official. Spring is in the air, as evident by the burgeoning blooms on cherry blossom trees I saw on my way to work. While talking to K, I discovered that the Japanese pickle the blooms and the leaves for food, as an accent for drinks and desserts, and even drunk as a savory tea called sakurayu. How does pickled sakura taste like? Very much like Japanese preserved plums or Ume, me thinks. Hence, it is not surprising that the 2 get paired rather frequently in culinary matrimonial bliss.    Piqued by the thought of making my own batch, I enlisted help in searching for a recipe. The problem is, the recipe does not specify what variety of sakura tree the blooms should be used from. We saw a variety by our workplace called Somei Yoshino, which has light pink flowers with 5 petals. (and proceeded to pluck away) Here's what we have in a small cup for the curing:
 Second Round of Blossom picking at the Esplanade, Boston.
Light source was a street lamp!
(Harvested April 6, 2010)
To make the sakura no shiozuke, you need:
  • 100 g sakura blossoms with stems
  • sea salt-1 Tbs for dehydration, 4 Tbs for storage
  • 4 Tbs plum vinegar (which is essentially gently-fermented brine from salting Japanese plums or Ume.)
Step 1: Wash the flowers carefully and remove the waxy (red) bits by the stems. Drain well and blot with a kitchen towel.

Step 2: Scatter sea salt on top of your flowers. Shake, but do not mix or the petals could separate from the stems. Cover with clear kitchen wrap and place a heavy jar on top of the blooms to force liquid out while soaking them in a brine. (If you have a Japanese pickling press, all the better) Leave overnight or for 1 day.
Step 3: Squeeze the flowers out of excess fluid and place in a jar or bowl. Add the plum vinegar and allow to gently ferment for 3 days.
Step 4: Line a baking tray with kitchen towel. Arrange the flowers and allow to dry in a shaded area. (~3 days)
In this case, my error was in picking fully-open blooms. After the pickling and pressing, the petals fell out, exposing pistils and stamens. Bald (hage) flowers are not pretty. I ended up plucking the petals off, then rolling them into tiny boules before drying them. It is my vision that these boules of petals would unfurl into the steaming hot tea. We'll see if that happens. *Update: they did!

Step 5: Place the blooms in a small jar and add sea salt for storage. Voila! Your very own salt-cured Somei Yoshino Cherry blossoms!

(Shirotae, Harvested April 7, 2010)
For more sakura varieties, K and I went night sakura-picking by the Esplanade at the Charles River after our wine and cheese party at work. While lovers were whispering sweet-nothings to each other in the dark, the both of us took constant flash photography and suspiciously hovered around the sakura trees picking at the buds. :) I then tried this recipe with Shirotae Cherry and a darker pink species called Shidare-zakura (Weeping Cherry).
 (Shidare, Harvested April 6, 2010)
Of the three, Shirotae was white, Somei Yoshino was pale pink, and Shidare was the darkest pink (and most similar to the recipe). However, in terms of aroma, Shirotae was most aromatic, followed by Somei Yoshino. Shidare smelt the least alluring of the 3 varieties I picked. Trade-off between color and aroma! Well at least I have 3 different flowers to mix and match.
(Finished Shidare Zakura no Shiozuke!)

*Update: Once the curing process was complete, I plopped a couple off Shidare flowers into hot water and behold.. they did open up a little. I was a little disappointed that their pink color was leached into the tea and that the tea wasn't reminiscent of the sweet plum smell from the salting. In fact, it smells like cut grass, which really isn't very appetizing, taste-wise. Use hot green tea to mask the zing, perhaps? I will try them in onigiri (rice balls) and update later on their taste.
(Yamazakura, harvested April 16 with Ws in the pouring rain, just outside Berryline in Cambridge)

Thanks to Keiko H.,  Japan-Guide and Jmode for helping with my identification of Sakura varieties :)


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