Japanese Vegetables, With Their Emphasis on Seasonality and Quality, Make Japanese Cookery Unique. This Article Delves Into Japanese Cuisine & The Veg At The Heart Of Japanese Cookery.
Westerners Will Consider Many Japanese Vegetables To Be Strange, But Some Will Be Easily Recognised.
Vegetables are a fundamental part of Japanese Cookery, without the veg there would be no Japanese cookery as we’ve come to know it. But not all the veg used in Japanese cookery are of historical or traditional importance. The original cuisine started with far fewer veg than used today.
Over the centuries the Japanese have sourced veg from the Asian mainland. Then, in the 16th century, contact was made with the West and new veg, of European origin entered the cuisine. Indeed, some western veg are still entering the cuisine. The humble potato is a prime example of the latter. Potatoes are known in Japan as Jagaimo (ジャガイモ), but their history is shrouded in confusion. Some sources say they were first introduced in by the Dutch in WWWW, whilst other sources claim they were introduced in 1910 by Baron Kawata and led to the establishment of the Danshaku Baron potatoes that are still famed for their flavour.
Potatoes are now imported from India and China with some production in Hokkaido where they are a regional speciality. They are used in several traditional Japanese dishes as well as in adapted Western dishes.
Nikujaga is a dish consisting of potatoes and meat stewed with soy sauce. But more on potato dishes later.
Not all veg used in Japan will be so well known to us in the West. Shishito, Nasu, Takenoko, Gobo and Renkon, all common Japanese vegetables, conjure up visions of Japanese food served up by kimono clad Geisha as I sit cross legged at a low chabudai type table.
Today, Japan treasures its cuisine but has also ventured in to McDonalds cuisine! In th remainder of this article I will however be focusing on the common and not so common vegetables used in Japanese Cuisine.
Vegetables Commonly Used In Japanese Food
Shiso Leaf aka Perilla (Perilla frutescens var. crispa)
Shiso (紫蘇/シソ) is a herb of the mint family. It’s found growing naturally in the mountainous regions China and India and is cultivated in Japan where several colour variations are grown for the kitchen. In the West it is also called the beefsteak plant because of its deep red colour.
Some people describe it as tasting like a Cinnamon Scented Basil. Though much will depend on the cultivar and the dish it is eaten with. The Thai cultivar has a smaller leaf and a stronger, more aromatic flavour, whilst the wild forms have less flavour and contain the perilla ketone which is potentially toxic. Beware!
Perilla first came to the West in the 1850 and was recorded as Perilla nankinensis after the Chinese city of Nanking. Shiso as a name came to the UK in the 1990s as a result in the increasing interest in sushi.
Today we have various cultivars of Shiso including crispa, purpurea, viridian, discolour, viridian-crispa and roses. All the Latin names being descriptive of the leaf colour and shape.
The colour variations are used in different recipes. For example green shiso is used as a garnish in sashimi, namero and tofu dishes. The red shiso is used in the making of pickled plums (umboshi).
Shiso buds and sprouts can also be used as a garnish and the cotyledons can be eaten as a microgreen. Even the flower can be used, either as a garnish or pickled.
There’s more on how to grow shiso via this link.
Okahijiki roughly translates as Land Seaweed. It’s a common crop in Japan and is one of Japan’s oldest vegetables. And perhaps because it is so common that it isn’t listed in many of the sources I’ve consulted. Not so in the West, where several of our seed catalogues recognise and offer it.
What is Okahijiki?
Okahijiki, aka saltwort, is a speciality gourmet dish in Japan. As its name suggests it has a tangy salty flavour with hint of tart pepperiness. In the wild it grows on salt marshes, but luckily for us it can tolerate the conditions that, as growers, we can provide. Indeed it can be grown without the addition of salt to its compost. Though it prefers to be kept damp.
The bright green leaves are often described as being like matchsticks, are around 2-3 inches long. It grows to around a foot high and the leaves are best harvested young as they tend to become tough with age.
Recipes vary but standard ones suggest it is best to lightly steam it or to sauté it in butter or olive oil. Others suggest it can be blanched or eaten raw in salads.
It works well with fish and is perhaps best considered a samphire substitute.
How to Grow Okahijiki
The normal advice is to sow outside from April to August when soil temperatures are warm. It can however be sown earlier with protection. I’m trying it in modules and aiming for a soil temperature of at least 18C. Time will tell me what the minimum it needs and still germinate.
Though a marsh plant it needs a well drained compost though moist compost and should be sown around 5mm deep. Germination is likely to be around 7-10 days depending on the temperature. Rainwater to salt water can be used to water it. It needs keeping moist to get the best from it.
The advice is to thin to around 15 cm (6 inches) with rows a little further apart.
Once I have more experience I might be able to advise in more detail.
Daikon (giant white radish)
Daikon isn’t exclusive to Japan. It is now widely grown and used in many cuisines. Indeed, it’s a crop I have in my garden every month of the year and frequently use in Indian cooking. In India it is known as mooli.
Imagine a cylindrical pure white root about 3-5 cm in diameter and about 30 cm long and you have a daikon. The flavour is hot and peppery and not so very different from traditional radish. But the shape offers so many other opportunities during preparation.
Grow daikon in the same way as you’d grow radish. But remember it will need a deep soil to get those roots into. There is more detailed growing information on the linked page entitled How to Grow Mooli.
More Japanese Vegetables To Follow
I’ll be adding more Japanese veg over the coming weeks. Watch this space and the linked Facebook page to learn more.