Sakura Tea : Tasting Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blooming season is nearing its end in Japan, but our trees are just now bursting into bloom. “The cure for/This raucous world…/Late cherry blossoms,” wrote the great Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, and as I walk to the subway each morning, I notice how the pink froth lights up the austere grey of the streets of Brussels. I take longer routes so that I can see more cherry trees and sometimes I take my lunch to the park where I experience my private hanami, flower viewing. Then I find stray petals tangled in my hair and clinging to my coat–reminders of our very late spring.

cherry-blossoms1

Don’t believe the perfumes named Cherry Blossom–real flowers smell nothing like the cherries we associate with cough syrup or flavored candy. They have a fresh, green scent, with an earthy rose accent. It’s as delicate as the pink confetti of cherry petals. Given the love the Japanese have for sakura, cherry blossom, it’s not surprising that during the spring season you also find all sorts of cherry blossom flavored delights, including soft drinks, chocolate, pastries, ice-cream and candy. Pierre Hermé, the renowned French pastry chef, even offers cherry blossom flavored macarons at his boutiques in Tokyo.

The truth is that the taste of cherry blossoms is even better than their smell, and if you have a cherry tree in the vicinity, it’s worth experiencing it. The flowers and leaves of the cherry tree contain a small amount of coumarin, the same component that gives tonka beans their delicious roasted almond and sweet hay aroma. Combined with a mellow green aroma, it’s a distinctive and memorable taste. Fresh cherry blossoms and leaves are preserved in salt, and then used to flavor rice, tea and sweets. Plum vinegar is added to the cherry blossom brine to accentuate the pink hue and fruity taste.

salted-sakurasalted-sakura1

My favorite way to enjoy cherry blossoms is in tea. Sakura-yu, as it’s called in Japan, is often served at auspicious occasions, like engagements and weddings. To make it, you shake off the salt from the preserved buds and add 3-4 per each cup of boiling water. As the flowers steep, the petals unfold in sheer layers. It’s a very feminine looking tea cup, but the taste is salty and sour, with an aftertaste of apricot and almond. The briny, marine flavor is a surprise, and it’s much bolder than you would expect.

sakura-yu

Using various parts of cherry trees in food is not limited to Japanese cuisine. My Ukrainian grandmother’s recipe for pickled cucumbers includes a generous handful of cherry leaves. She also adds them to gooseberry jams and syrups to accentuate the emerald green color and add a subtle hint of almond. Cherry branches are added to some marinades, since tannins in the bark ensure that pickles remain firm and crunchy. Cherry wood smoked barbecue is rich and sweet. I don’t remember eating cherry blossoms as a child, but I chewed the ambery sap oozing from cherry trunks as a sort of bubble gum. (Before you pity me as a poor, underfed Soviet child, I should say that my grandmother’s table was  always laden with food, but I loved nothing more than to forage in the garden for edible treats.)

sakura-salt

Preserved cherry blossoms can be found at Japanese stores, where you can ask for sakura no shiozuke (桜の塩漬け) cherry blossoms preserved with salt and vinegar. Also, look out for the salt preserved leaves, cherry blossom jam and flavored honey. If you have a tree, you can try salting the blossoms and leaves yourself, following this recipe from the Japan Times. On occasion, I’ve asked sellers at the farmer’s market to bring me some leaves from their sour cherry trees (those of the sweet varieties are not strongly flavored).

I realize that it’s a somewhat esoteric quest, but why not? Sometimes it’s good to slow down to smell the blossoms. Or even take a little  bite.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Extra: another step-by-step recipe for salted cherry blossoms and one for salted cherry leaves, along with some cooking suggestions.

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60 Comments

  • Melanie: Wow! Fascinating! I don’t know if I can find them ready-made in Australia, but I’ll try. You mentioned that they’re used in rice. Do you mix them in before or after cooking? April 25, 2013 at 7:55am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t know if it’s of any help, but a friend suggested a website called anything-from-japan.com I haven’t ordered from them, so I can’t say how good they are, but their selection is impressive. They ship worldwide.

      I’ve seen different recipes for the cherry blossom rice. Some recommend soaking cherry blossoms briefly in water, which you then use to cook rice. Before serving, fold in chopped blossoms. Or you can add cherry blossoms before cooking rice. Either, save some pretty blossoms to decorate rice before serving. April 25, 2013 at 11:50am Reply

  • Beth: Oh how interesting! I have a couple cherry trees, one that is just a flowering weeping cherry, but the other is a true cherry tree. The birds always get to the cherries before I do.

    I’ve never heard of eating the blossoms, or the leaves, or the sap tho. I’m going to scare the neighbors, outside licking my cherry tree! April 25, 2013 at 8:16am Reply

    • solanace: Birds! The eat all my persimmmon! (In the end, I keep the tree mostly for attracting them.) April 25, 2013 at 10:36am Reply

      • Victoria: And speaking of persimmons, the leaves have a fantastic, rich flavor. It’s best to dry them first and then use them in tea. So, you can still enjoy some parts of your persimmon tree. April 25, 2013 at 12:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: 🙂 As a child, I was quite a cherry sap connoisseur, and my favorite was the kind that was jelly like. If it’s too solid, it’s very hard, too soft, and it’s too sticky. It has a very interesting, balsamic taste. I still can recall it precisely, enough though it’s been decades since I’ve licked a cherry tree. 🙂 April 25, 2013 at 12:07pm Reply

    • Annikky: I symphatize, as the same happens to my mother’s cherries. And I always seem to forget that it’s inevitable and am then devastated when left with four half-eaten cherries. April 25, 2013 at 2:35pm Reply

      • Annikky: *sympathize April 25, 2013 at 2:53pm Reply

  • Natasha: Lovely photos! My Russian grandmother added cherry leaves when she pickled cucumbers or appples but never with tomatoes for some reason. April 25, 2013 at 8:36am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Natasha! My grandmother also used black currant and horseradish leaves in her pickle marinades.

      Now, I’m craving a pickled cucumber! 🙂 April 25, 2013 at 12:09pm Reply

  • Elizabeth: I would love to try some Sakura tea! My fiance lived in Japan for several years. I should ask him if he is familiar with it. April 25, 2013 at 9:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Definitely ask him! I wonder if he has tried it. If you make a trip to Mitsuwa in Edgewater just about now, you might find most of the things I’ve mentioned. April 25, 2013 at 12:10pm Reply

  • Leah: This sounds so intriguing – I will have to try and hunt down some preserved cherry blossoms! The image of the blossoms floating in the cup is surreal! I love savory/sweet teas, very satisfying. There is a wonderful mint/thyme savory tea that Carrefour sells under their brand name. Mine is from Paris but they may have it in their Brussels location as well. Have a wonderful day and thanks for the beautiful post April 25, 2013 at 9:27am Reply

    • Victoria: I will check, since there are a couple of Carrefours nearby. I didn’t think I would like the salty-sour combination, but the sakura tea is addictive. It’s also very refreshing. April 25, 2013 at 12:11pm Reply

  • Lauren: Lovely! Thank you for a little trip down memory lane 🙂 April 25, 2013 at 9:34am Reply

    • Victoria: I would love to hear more! 🙂 April 25, 2013 at 12:13pm Reply

  • iodine: How beautiful- everything!
    My personal hanami is performed daily- but hastily!- on my way to the school where I work: a short pedestrian alley lined with cherry trees. Their fragrance- which I identify as “honey”, though it’s evidently the other way around!- gives me a boost of energy before facing my hyper active teen pupils!
    Never tasted sakura tea, sounds lovely! April 25, 2013 at 10:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I was thinking as I read your comment that another way to describe the scent of cherry blossom is to imagine the scent of light green tea with some honey and a couple of drops of rosewater. It’s such a delicate perfume, but when there are many trees in full bloom, it feels lush. April 25, 2013 at 12:14pm Reply

  • solanace: You are such a source of knowledge, V! Thank’s once again for another great, informative read. Next time I go to a Japanese market, I’ll ask for the preserved blossoms – and of course, next time I see a cherry tree (they are not very common here), I’ll see if I can get a few flowers.

    I’m with you about the garden thing, too. Nothing feels better for a child than picking food directly from Nature. I think it’s our primitive self… After all, as Thoreau said, kids are crazy about caves, too! My boy eats chives (!!) and basil leaves from the garden every day, not to mention the fruit. My favourite treat as a child was to get an entire sugar cane. Oh man, did we get our sugar fix! April 25, 2013 at 10:33am Reply

    • Victoria: Getting Japanese ingredients in Brussels is not exactly challenging, but a bit tricky. I even bring some Japanese ingredients from the US. In Paris, there is a fairly big Japanese community, from what I understand.

      Glad that you liked the post! I love the idea that cherry blossoms are also delicious, besides being so pretty. April 25, 2013 at 12:21pm Reply

  • Cacomixtle: My Russian/Ukrainian great grandmother who settled in Appalachia used cherry leaves in pickles the exact same way!

    Every year I make a cordial of our wild black cherry flowers and twigs that is both delicious and very calming. Some people consider cherry leaves and flowers to be toxic, but in general this seems to be a misunderstanding of chemistry rather than reality.

    Thank you for such a beautiful post! April 25, 2013 at 11:04am Reply

    • Victoria: Would you mind sharing your recipe for cordial? It sounds heavenly! We’ve never made anything like that, but I would love to try.

      Coumarin in large doses is harmful, but in order to experience any ill effects one has to eat literally pounds and pounds of cherry leaves. Plus, it’s present in many other edible grasses and leaves. April 25, 2013 at 12:26pm Reply

      • Cacomixtle: I believe they’re more concerned with the prussic acid, and thus, cyanide… but yes, you would have to eat a great deal of cherry leaves, and most likely rotting cherry leaves in order for this to be a problem. Also, we’re not ruminants, which are the animals that have the most trouble with Prunus poisoning.

        And yes, I’ll be happy to share the recipe, it’s quite simple, and there are endless possible variations. This also works quite well with Peach flowers and twigs, with Wild Roses, and a number of other fragrant edible plants. I’ve only tried this with our local species of Cherry, Prunus serotina and Prunus virginiana, but I’m imagining it will work well with any aromatic cherry species or variant.

        1. Loosely fill a pint jar with freshly picked cherry blossoms, leaves, and twigs (I just clip off the ends of the leafy twigs with the flowers, but you can just use flowers if you prefer).

        2. Fill jar halfway with high quality honey and stir to coat the cherry flowers and twigs in the honey.

        3. Fill to top with high quality liquor, I very much like cognac for this, but any good brandy can work fine. Just be sure to use an at least 80 proof/40% alcohol for proper preservation.

        4. Stir to release any air bubbles, and top off if necessary.

        5. Cover with airtight lid and allow to macerate in a cool, dark place for 2-4 weeks.

        6. Strain, reserving liquid.

        7. Store in an airtight jar in a cool, dark place. This should remain tasty for at least a couple of years, and probably much longer.

        This stuff is very strong and concentrated, and can make you feel very relaxed and happy, and incidentally, can reduce the severity of bronchial spasms lol. When drinking for pleasure, you may wish to either take tiny sips or mix with something like food grade rosewater etc.,

        I actually just had a tiny sip of some six year old cordial/elixir and it still tastes perfectly delicious, almondy and floral all at once. I tend to store mine in apothecary style dropper bottles and dispense by the dropperfull for whatever purpose. April 25, 2013 at 1:06pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much! It sounds so good.

          Makes sense that the cordial is medicinal too, because in my books on herbal medicine it says that the bark is very good for soothing coughs and for treating various respiratory ailments. April 25, 2013 at 3:04pm Reply

          • Cacomixtle: Yes indeed, I make my living as a clinical herbalist and botanist, which is part of why I’m perfume obsessed, because I love plants in all their forms!

            This is also a good remedy for folks who can get heart palpitations from anxiety (ruling out any organic causes of course), and the very aromatic cherries as well as Peach also have some anti-histamine actions that can be very useful when treating mild reactions to venomous insects. April 25, 2013 at 3:13pm Reply

            • Victoria: That’s so fascinating! One of my grandmothers is a herbalist (but it’s more of a hobby rather than a profession for her), and I think that I got my love of all things scented from her. She would take on me various foraging expeditions or we picked different plants in our garden. One of her favorite beauty products was a lotion she made with white Madonna lily petals, and I still remember the vintage bottle, in which she stored it.

              I hope to learn more from you! April 25, 2013 at 3:17pm Reply

              • Cacomixtle: Oh, you’re very sweet, Victoria! I have certainly learned an enormous amount about perfume and all things scented from you over the last several years <3

                I love reading about your family and childhood, and it's wonderful to hear about your herbalist grandmother.

                I also spend a great deal of time teaching people about foraging wild and feral plants for food, fragrance, and medicine… and the foraging itself is a favorite pastime, and one originally taught to me by my mother. April 25, 2013 at 3:26pm Reply

                • Victoria: I also love learning how all of us started falling in love with fragrance, whether by chance, or like you and I, through our family members.

                  When I was little, I remember reading a lot about plants. There were even foraging books for kids! Perhaps, this speaks more about the Soviet realities of the day than anything, but I still love those books. April 26, 2013 at 2:21pm Reply

  • noele: Your childhood sounds pretty awfully romantic; I envy it! I can’t wait to try preserving some flowers myself – the trees are in bloom across San Francisco. Finally something to do with those blossoms other than just photograph them. Thank you.

    What do you know about preserving lemon or orange blossoms? The smell is far more potent, just wondering how that might translate over to taste. April 25, 2013 at 12:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: Some parts of my childhood weren’t so nice, but the times I’ve spent with my grandparents were special. My great grandparents were still alive. We spent a lot of time outdoors, and my grandmothers loved nature and plants. They collected various recipes, and I was an eager helper in drying the linden blossoms or picking the cherry leaves for the gooseberry jam.

      You can definitely preserve lemon or orange blossoms. You can dry them out and then use them in teas.

      Or you can make a jam. I found a recipe in “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” by Claudia Roden and it’s been copied into my notes. The original recipe calls for rose petals, but it can be adapted to the orange blossoms instead.

      1 lb fresh rose petals, preferably red
      Juice of 1½ lemons, or more
      2 cups sugar
      2-3 Tbs rose water (or use orange blossom water for orange blossom jam)

      Pick fresh petals. (Make sure they have not been sprayed with insecticide.) Cut off their white ends with scissors, and wash and drain the petals. Cover with water in a large pan, add the juice of 1/2 lemon, and simmer for 30 minutes. Then drain. [if the water doesn’t taste bitter, I save it and use it in the syrup that follows.]

      In the same pan, make a syrup by boiling 2½ cups of water with the sugar and the remaining lemon juice for 10 minutes. Let it cool, put the petals in, and leave them to macerate for 24 hours.

      Bring the syrup and petals to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the petals are tender. Add rose water (or orange blossom water), if you like, and boil a moment more. Pour into a glass jar and let cool before closing. April 25, 2013 at 12:43pm Reply

  • Annikky: How lovely! I adore anything and everything cherry blossom (I actually sometimes buy horrible shower gels simply because it says “cherry blossom” on the label) and I love cherries as well. Where I come from, cherry leaves are added to aronia syrup, which makes the taste more complex. I bought those Herme macarons in Paris two years ago – just wonderful. And this April he had a variety called Jardin Japonais, also great. If someone made a cherry blossom Pavlova, it would be my kind of heaven.

    There is a little Japanese garden in Kadriorg park in Tallinn, where they have small Japanese cherry trees. It’s beautiful, but I need to wait a little longer before they bloom. I am dying to try the cherry blossom tea, but in the absence of any preserved buds, I brewed Fleur de Geisha as a substitute. Thank you for inspiration! April 25, 2013 at 2:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: I do too! I even have Guerlain Cherry Blossom, which I keep finding a bit of a letdown, but the packaging is too irresistible. 🙂

      Pierre Herme’s Jardin Japonais is a delicious macaron, and he uses cherry, lemon, along with tonka bean to create the flavor. It’s very clever, because cherry and tonka bean is a perfect pairing. (I’ll try to translate that into Pavlova.) In Japan, he is very popular, and many large hotels feature his pastry counters. Also, the high-end Belgian chocolatiers like Pierre Marcolini do brisk business there. Incidentally, Marcolini’s boutique didn’t survive in NYC, but he now has 5 or 6 in Japan.

      Your mention of aronia syrup reminded me how much I love them. It’s really the taste of childhood for me, because we had a small tree, and it was my job to pick berries. I don’t recall how we cooked them, but I remember eating them raw. They taste sort of winey and tannic. April 25, 2013 at 3:13pm Reply

      • Annikky: I ate them raw, too – they are indeed tannic and very intense in taste. I remember being overenthusiastic and eating slightly too many and then making the same mistake again. And again. I think my mother still has a few trees, they are beautiful in the autumn with their colourful leaves. April 26, 2013 at 5:25am Reply

        • Victoria: They are really striking! Another tree I love is a rowanberry tree. In the North of Russia, they make jellies and marmalade with the berries, but in Ukraine, it was just a decorative tree. The red berries covered with snow look so festive. April 26, 2013 at 7:40am Reply

  • sara: beautiful post! i don’t know the smell of cherry blossoms, but we had a big peach tree in our garden. it smelled like spring. April 25, 2013 at 5:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: All of these spring blossoms have such a great scent. It might seem light when you smell a single flower, but when you’re standing under a blooming tree, it feels heady! April 26, 2013 at 7:53am Reply

  • Marjorie: I love the haiku you quoted so much I wrote it down in my diary. Thank you for a lovely post. April 25, 2013 at 5:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad you liked it! I found this haiku poignant and beautiful. April 26, 2013 at 7:52am Reply

  • Poodle: What a timely post! I just bought some Sakura green tea last week. I has no idea if I would like it but the cherry blossoms looked so pretty and springlike in the green tea I had to try it. Cherry blossoms really work well in green tea. I only bought a little bit just in case I didn’t like it but I’ll be buying more when I run out. It’s a tasty cup of tea. April 25, 2013 at 7:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can see how green tea and cherry blossom would work perfectly! Which brand is your tea? April 26, 2013 at 7:51am Reply

  • Martha: This post, and its attending comments, recipes, etc. has been delightful to read. I must find some preserved cherry blossoms. Thanks everyone! April 25, 2013 at 9:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: I join you in saying thank you again to everyone. So many other interesting ideas! I’m now itching to make the cherry cordial Cacomixtle mentioned, but I have to wait till I visit my grandmother. April 26, 2013 at 7:46am Reply

  • Claire: What an informative & interesting post, Victoria! I truly learn something new each time I visit your blog. I consider myself a Nipponophile yet I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never heard of Sakura-yu. Embarrassed no more, thanks to your post!
    We’ve been enjoying our share of cherry blossom here and sadly they are gone now. There’s always something to look for to for next Spring. April 25, 2013 at 11:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve never seen it mentioned whenever I read about the Japanese cherry blossom festivals and customs, and I learned about it only recently. Whenever I saw mentions of sakura tea, I assumed that it was flavored green tea. 🙂 April 26, 2013 at 7:45am Reply

  • maja: This is such a wonderful post! Thank you so much. Is salting the only way of preserving cherry blossom? April 26, 2013 at 5:23am Reply

    • Victoria: There are cherry blossom jams at the Japanese stores, so I imagine you can cook them this way too. I don’t know how much flavor would be retained by drying them out though. April 26, 2013 at 7:41am Reply

  • civava: Wow, that is the most intresting thing I’ve read for some time. I love the cherry blossoms announcing the spring has really come. Especially this year, I couldn’t wait to see some colors after long depressing winter.
    I certainly will try something of the above mentioned. April 27, 2013 at 8:50am Reply

    • Victoria: I know what you mean! Our winter has been so long and grey that a sight of blossoms on trees makes everyone smile more. There are long stretches of streets lined with cherry trees on both sides, and they look so magical in full bloom. April 28, 2013 at 12:10pm Reply

  • Monkeytoe: I have never had chery blossom tea, but I drink cherry stem tea, which is soothing and delicious. April 27, 2013 at 6:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: I saw cherry stems at the pharmacy nearby, and I’ve asked the lady what they are for. She said that they help with water retention and just “taste very nice.” So, I bought some, but I haven’t yet tried them. April 28, 2013 at 12:11pm Reply

  • Emma M: I have a white cherry tree in my garden and both the blossoming flowers and picking the ripe fruit in midsummer are annual rituals I always look forward to. I had no idea the sap, leaves and flowers were edible though.

    The buds on my tree are just about to burst open, so now I’m super-excited to try making the salted preserves and Cacomixtle’s cordial recipe above April 28, 2013 at 10:27am Reply

    • Victoria: I also was surprised to discover how many uses cherry blossoms have besides just being pretty. In Japan, fresh cherry and plum blossoms are also added to sake just before serving, and it’s such a nice combination. If you drink sake, it’s worth trying it (you need only a few blossoms). Otherwise, even floating a few blossoms in your cup of green tea is a great spring treat. April 28, 2013 at 12:32pm Reply

  • Andrea: I live in Grasse and the Rose season is just starting… I work in a natural ingredients lab here, and there is nothing in the world I love more than the week that they bring in the roses. I usually (discreetly :p) bring some back home to do this same type of infusion but with roses. Not I am just sad I hadn’t thought about cherry blossom taste before! April 29, 2013 at 8:59am Reply

    • Victoria: How beautiful it must be! I envy you to be surrounded by such gorgeous smells, as few other places are as perfumed as the rose fields of Grasse during their peak season. April 29, 2013 at 11:49am Reply

  • Daisy: That looks absolutely amazing! I love learning about different products from around the world. I have never seen salted cherry blossoms before, but then again, I wasn’t really looking. Will keep an eye out because I very much would like to try them. Do you know if they are readily available at all Japanese supermarkets? I’m thinking of Sunrise Mart, but they are kind of small… May 27, 2013 at 11:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: Not sure about Sunrise Mart, but Mitsuwa should have it in season. May 28, 2013 at 4:39am Reply

  • Ms. Iles: I live in Canada, and I was lucky enough to grow up with a beautiful, almost park-like garden (my brother became a botanist!) which included four Schubert chokecherry trees that had the most intoxicating and yet delicate perfumed scent that haunts me to this day. If only I had known about this wonderful technique back then for preserving the blossoms! I have always loved flowers, but I have only recently begun exploring perfumes, and I really enjoy reading your lovely and evocative blog 🙂 January 11, 2014 at 1:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! I’m glad that you found us and that you’re enjoying the page.
      I’m also kicking myself for not knowing about salting the blossoms when we had a cherry blossom tree in the yard. It produced so many flowers and I was always wishing to prolong the season somehow. Well, now we know. We just need to find a tree. 🙂 January 12, 2014 at 4:56am Reply

  • KJV: I had some 5mins ago but there dried and so delicious. Abd i added a bit if honey. Best tea ever March 21, 2015 at 7:59pm Reply

    • Victoria: Glad to hear it! Enjoy! March 23, 2015 at 11:52am Reply

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