The Japanese look forward to the spring when the cherry trees blossom. They honor the tree through art, music and even food. Not only are the blossoms and fruit eaten but the leaves are preserved and incorporated in recipes, from sakura-mochi for Hina-matsuri to sakura rice.
If you plan to make your own preserved cherry leaves for Hina-matsuri, do so the year before as cherry trees are dormant in March.
Here are two ways to make your own salted cherry leaves. But both methods call for fresh leaves of the cherry tree. Leaves from the Oshima cherry tree are preferred because the leaves are softer than those of other varieties, but the texture also varies depending upon the age of the leaf. Younger leaves are more tender, but sometimes you will want a larger leaf to wrap around foods, which means a more mature leaf.
Select young cherry leaves and wash them well. Place them in a glass container with a lid. In a pot, bring one quart of water with ¼ cup salt to a boil. Pour this hot brine over the cherry leaves in the glass container. Allow this to cool, cover with lid and refrigerate. Before using, rinse lightly under running water and pat dry with a kitchen towel.
Select young cherry leaves and wash them well. In a cheesecloth-lined steamer, place the leaves in a single layer and steam over boiling water for about five minutes. Alternatively, you can blanch them in boiling water for about 5 seconds and then place them in iced water to cool and stop the cooking. Pat the leaves dry. Layer the leaves with a light sprinkling of salt in a glass or plastic container and weight it down with a heavy object. After one day, remove the weight, cover the container and keep it in the refrigerator. Before using, be sure to rinse off any salt and pat dry with a kitchen towel.
Sakura-mochi: Some people remove the sakura (cherry) leaves before eating the mochi or food that they are wrapped around. But enjoy the leaf for its flavor and fragrance. Just be sure not to eat too many leaves. While there are some desirable medicinal qualities (appetite suppressant and blood thinning), there are potential dangers of eating too many, too often, including liver toxicity. But since most people usually enjoy only one sakura-mochi at a sitting, the risks are nil.
Sushi: Chop the leaves and add them to chirashi sushi rice. You can wrap onigiri or nigiri-sushi with sakura leaves, too. Another delicious way to eat them is to chop them add them to a nori tsukudani (condiment made by simmering soy sauce, mirin and nori) or to homemade salted umeboshi (tiny baby plums pickled in a salty brine.)