Turnips — those pale, waxy orbs usually found sitting forlornly in bins at the supermarket — may win the title for the world’s most unloved vegetable. It’s no wonder: here in the States, the turnips one most often encounters are bulbous, fibrous behemoths utterly lacking in color, texture, and flavor. Even when roasted into oblivion and doused with butter, they’re a hard sell. Thankfully, learning to love turnips is not difficult if you can track down a bunch of the tender hakurei variety. This Japanese breed, with its smooth, snow-white roots and deep green leaves, is equally wonderful raw, roasted, simmered, or even lightly pickled.
In Japan, turnips (kabu / 蕪) are usually sold with their tender green tops still attached. In one common preparation, the roots are first simmered in a mixture of dashi, mirin, sake, shōyu, and sugar, then served alongside the blanched greens. This simple technique utterly transforms these otherwise unremarkable vegetables: upon emerging from their bath in the salty-sweet cooking liquid, the turnips have a remarkably silky texture and the unmistakable savory depth imparted by dashi.
Prior to moving to Japan, my knowledge of sushi was mainly limited to the elaborate makizushi (rolled sushi) available at most American Japanese restaurants. Unsurprisingly, these baroque concoctions of mayonnaise, avocado, and processed crab always left me feeling curiously unsatisfied and perplexed. In high school, a friend had introduced me to nigirizushi, but even then my palate was unable to find much pleasure in the unusual combination of sweet, salty, raw, and cooked.
During my first week of work at a large university hospital near Tokyo, my employer – the head of the orthopedics department – took me out to lunch at a family-owned sushi restaurant by the train station. After removing our shoes at the door, we seated ourselves on zabuton cushions at the counter, tucking our legs into the hidden compartment beneath the floor. I sat entranced as the owners’ son patted out fingers of warm, seasoned rice for nigirizushi. He worked in smooth, rhythmic motions, quickly dipping his hands in water before shaping the shari (vinegared rice). An assistant stood nearby, deftly slicing fish into perfect, tapered pieces. Soon we were presented with two ceramic platters, each of which held no fewer than ten pieces of sushi. Out of some mix of deference and ignorance, I followed my dining companion’s lead, beginning with the mild, white fish, moving on to more oily, flavorful varieties like mackerel, and finishing with the tamagoyaki (a sweet, layered omelet) and a nori-wrapped round of rice topped with translucent beads of ikura (salmon roe).