Sakura, or cherry blossom, is Japan’s national flower and a celebrated symbol of renewal and hope. Sakura trees are only in bloom for a few short weeks, ending in a dramatic shower of petals falling. Sakura trees make stunning ornamental trees but don’t produce edible fruits; however, the tree produces edible flowers and leaves. These petals, blossoms and leaves are a seasonal ingredient used in Japanese cuisine in a number of traditional dishes and desserts.
The cherished flavor of sakura emerges with a specific preservation technique. When the cherry blossoms have bloomed around 70% while the stem is still intact, they will be soaked in plum vinegar to keep the color and flavor of the flower while helping to preserve them throughout the year. Then the artisans will wash, drain and incubate with salt for 3-4 weeks. Next, the flowers are dried and stored. The leaves and flowers of Sakura contain a chemical called Coumarin, which is where its sweet-vanilla like scent comes from. Coumarin may cause a mild toxic effect if consumed in large quantities; however, only small amounts of sakura is needed to impart good flavor.
When raw, sakura petals have an earthy, bitter almond-like taste with a subtle flowery or rose flavor. The authentic flavor emerges when the blossoms are freeze-dried or pickled with salt and plum vinegar and the aroma and flavor of the flower becomes concentrated. The delicate aroma with an elegant pink hue elevates its appeal. Combining sublime appearance and taste, sakura is a great ingredient for flavoring, light pink food coloring, garnishing, and is especially used in a variety of Japanese desserts. Sakura can be used in mochi, macarons, cake, wagashi and daifuku, as well as in tea, lattes, sake, and rice or noodles.
When sakura is in bloom, Japan celebrates this season with the custom of sakura-viewing parties called Hanami. Because the flowers have a short lifespan, they represent the transient nature of life in Japanese culture and sakura-inspired delicacies make these occasions memorable.