Of all the wonderful shops and businesses I frequented while living in Matsumoto, one of the most memorable was a family-owned produce store in Sōza, a quiet residential neighborhood on the city’s northeastern edge. On balmy summer evenings, just as dusk was settling over the rice paddies, I’d take a stroll over to the shop and pick up whatever looked good for dinner: tiny eggplants with shiny, purplish black skin for nasu dengaku, locally made yakidōfu (grilled tofu), or perhaps a bunch of spiky, crunchy mizuna from one of the many neighborhood farms.
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.
Several years ago, I spent a summer working at a small garden in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The work was sweaty and strenuous but also remarkably satisfying. My days were mostly occupied with transporting and turning compost, starting seedlings, mixing soil, watering, harvesting and drying herbs, and tending to vermicompost bins. One task that didn’t figure prominently into my daily routine, however, was weeding. Rather than spending hours uprooting every last foreign shoot from the beds and mulched paths, I took some advice from my supervisor, Martha, and let them take root. She taught me which varieties were edible and suggested ways to cook them. Lambs quarters, she warned, should be blanched first to remove any traces of toxic oxalic acid; amaranth leaves were better when young and tender. Armed with this knowledge, I returned home every week with armfuls of greens: peppery wild arugula and delicate lamb’s quarters were sautéed with garlic and plenty of olive oil before being incorporated into frittatas, blanched amaranths got tossed with spaghetti and salty cheese, and juicy purslane found its way into countless tomato and herb salads.
Every new year, we promise ourselves new lives, new looks, new selves. Yet by the end of the first week of January, how many of us still feel that motivation, that tug toward self-improvement? Think for a moment now: what if every day were lived with that sort of mindfulness and deliberation, of keeping our promises to others and ourselves? What would that feel like, and who would we become? We might not necessarily become better, or wiser, or more beautiful, but perhaps we would live with a greater appreciation for incremental change, the gradual completion of a project, the assiduous chiseling of an idea, the slow and uncertain progress that underlies day-to-day existence.
Spring makes me antsy – it puts me in the mood for travel, for adventure, for places yet unseen. The promise of summer’s balmy nights lies not far off, just perceptible, like a taste on the tip of the tongue. I always have to be careful, though, to not wish on summer too eagerly. In the end, it always passes far too quickly, leaving me wishing I had savored the moments between the seasons more judiciously.
This year I’m making an effort to do just that. As we begin the inexorable slide toward summer, I find myself cooking less intensively but still craving sustenance with some body. Although warm food still seems appropriate, spring’s delicate, young vegetables – a far cry from the flamboyant, exuberant bounty of summer produce – call for a light hand in seasoning and preparation.
While Western cuisine can certainly do justice to spring produce (as evidenced by this gorgeous spread), the restrained flavors and minimalist preparations of Japanese cooking seem, in some ways, much better suited to these fleeting delicacies. I’m certainly not butter-averse (particularly when it comes to baked goods), but dousing vegetables with the stuff is not exactly an affordable proposition in Japan, where less than half a pound costs upwards of 350 yen (~4 USD). So, I’ve decided to take a different approach this spring and try my hand at some unfamiliar dishes.
Somehow, nearly a month has come and gone since my last post. I realize I’ve been remiss in regaling you with tales of Japan’s culinary delights, but I hope you understand, given the circumstances. After the earthquake, when thousands were subsisting on instant noodles and rice balls, writing about food seemed inappropriate, even impossible. For a few days, I subsisted on simple meals – simmered chicken and kabocha squash, egg salad on toast, rice with pickles – but even these healthy, comforting dishes were difficult to enjoy. Amid the shock and stress, my appetite and will to cook (much less photograph and write about food) simply disappeared.
Thankfully, over the past several weeks my capacity to enjoy the small pleasures of daily life – a picnic with friends, the first whiff of early spring’s bracing breath, a satin blue sky against tufts of sakura – has returned, albeit in fits and starts. When I returned to Japan almost two weeks ago, I found myself craving one thing: soba, particularly Shinshū soba, a rustic variety from Nagano prefecture. Whenever I’m feeling under the weather, both physically and mentally, nothing revives me more than soba, preferably accompanied by plenty of sprightly scallions and sansai (mountain vegetables). It’s nourishment embodied, as sustaining as chicken noodle soup but, to my peculiarly un-American taste buds, infinitely tastier.
Growing up, one of my favorite meals was Chinese food from the take-out place near my family’s house in Brooklyn. The restaurant, which stood (and still stands!) across from the local police station and pizzeria, served up the typical rotation of heavily sauced and overly sweet Chinese-American favorites. We always ordered cold sesame noodles, garlicky stir-fried broccoli and beef, and sweet and sour chicken, with its cloak of bright orange sauce studded with juicy chunks of canned pineapple. This last dish was my favorite, for at the time it seemed like a delightfully sophisticated version of chicken nuggets.