Miso Soup with Young Turnips

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.

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Ozōni

I first tasted ozōni, a comforting mélange of vegetables and broth topped with toasted rice cakes, in Hakodate, a charming port city on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaidō famous for its squid and Western-style architecture. It was New Year’s morning, and I had arrived in Japan just a few days earlier. The previous evening had been a blur of rapid-fire Japanese, new and exciting foods (candy-sweet black beans! Bright yellow chestnuts and sweet potatoes! Raw quail eggs with soba noodles!) and unfamiliar etiquette. Of course, my confusion was compounded by jetlag and culture shock, not to mention a few sips too many of sake and umeshu. The next morning, after my attempts to watch the sun rise over Goryōkaku park were stymied by a blizzard, I felt a powerful craving for a hot, warm breakfast.

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Roots and Rootlessness

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.

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Soup and Shadows

In his remarkable essay “In Praise of Shadows” (1933), Jun’ichirō Tanizaki expounds on his appreciation for the imperfections, tarnishes, and subtleties – shadows, broadly writ – that permeate and define everyday life in Japan. In discursive, flowing prose, Tanizaki discusses the patina objects acquire with repeated use, the subtle glow emitted by paper lanterns, the darkening and softening of wood over time, the fluidity and softness afforded by calligraphy brushes and paper. Over the course of these discussions, Tanizaki reveals what appears (at least in the context of the essay) to be a fundamental cultural divide. Where Western culture values illumination, clarity, and logic, Japanese aesthetic sensibilities place a premium on subtlety, haziness and ambiguity – that is, on the border between light and dark, on shadows.

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