New Japanese Flora Foodie Frontiers (For Me, Anyway)

Too many a-travelblogpost gush on about the writer’s profound new experience — hitherto largely explored by the common, housebound masses – daringly testing out the local cuisine of whatever continent on which they’ve landed and decided to insult with their presence. Poosts (a new word I’ve coined, one which I’ll leave you to figure out) prattle on about how aMAaaaZing, followed by a head-shaking number of exclamation points, the food is, and how they’re soooo blessed by Hayzeus Agatha Christi to have had the experience. Following this, the viewer is shown frustratingly unperceivable photos of said food and perhaps feels the dooming sense that this person will someday either be the President of the United States or of a hippie drum circle in North Carolina.

I shall do the same here, but with more flair, finesse, and alliteration.

Konnyaku (こんにゃく)

A squishy block of konjac. Source: Wikipedia

A squishy block of konjac. Source: Wikipedia

Recently, I’ve become bold in my efforts to expand my palette in Japanese plant-based foods. On recommendation by my students (I’m an English teacher, if you haven’t been ardently following this fascinating blog), I recently tried the squishy gelatinous konnyaku, or konjac, or voodoo lily, snake palm, or elephant yam. Amorphophallus konjac, as it’s known botanically, comes from one of my favorite subfamilies of plants, Aroideae, under which can be found Arisaema triphyllum, or jack-in-the-pulpit.

For those unfortunate souls whose teeth have never worried away at a strip of this popular (not to mention incredibly healthy) Japanese staple, do not shy away from this for appearances’ sake. I cut thin strips of the dead, graying carcass of Flubber and fried them in oil along with a few eggs. As I myself am a bit blubberphobic, I fried the strips until they were quite tough (as one with an aversion to extremely soft tofu would do), and – voila! – tastes of bacon, sir.

Still good!

Still good!

Renkon (レンコン)

A lot of recipes call for lotus root, pronounced ren-kon in Japanese-speak, to be stir fried with soy sauce and sesame seeds. Me, I just slapped this baby onto the skillet and fried it in good ole-fashioned watery oil (I had very little oil left and needed some for my hair the next morning), and BANG, I had extremely plain lotus root to go with my equally plain rice. My experience with this typical ingredient in Japanese cuisine was complete, and I subsequently forgot about the remaining hunk of root, which is still rotting in my mini refrigerator to this day.

Kabocha (カボチ)

Some days, I wonder what on earth I’d do without this squash, and then I realize in a panic that I’ve run out and make a dash for Family Mart before the old people, who are so fond at poking at sweet potatoes at the mall, clean them out. In my sad Koriyama dwelling, I steam kabocha nearly every day, often with a pinch of cinnamon, and add it to any rice dish. Despite my seemingly newfound obsession, I was actually unwittingly introduced to this fruit by a former Chinese student of mine in Pennsylvania over a year ago.

Daikon (大根)

I kept hearing “radish” being thrown around, especially when it came to sushi and sashimi, but not once did I see the cherry-sized and -colored snack veggie I was so used to seeing in my parents’ refrigerator in Pennsylvania.

The radish I speak of here in Japan (aokubi-daikon) is long and white, much like an icicle or an albino carrot. Agriculturally, it seems that this crop is sometimes left to overwinter, as some persimmon trees, so they can decompose and release growth-stimulating nitrogen for the next crops in the rotation. Otherwise, I’ve experienced the root grated on salads and next to slices of ginger on sushi plates. I myself have lightly sautéed it, as one would a leek or spring onion, and added it to rice-based dishes for some added crispy freshness.

Satsumaimo/Yakiimo/Sweet Potato

Not just another tuberous root. The tuberous root. I can recall one bitter cold night, not long after arriving in Koriyama this time last year, and hearing the eeriest sound between the slaps of hard winter winds on my window. I peeked out from the covers on my bed just in time to see a glowing red object slide beyond a garden wall, down the alleyway, and out of sight. I shoved on my shoes and ran outside, following the sound, but the wind was taking it every which way. I walked and walked but never found the source of the mysterious music that night.

Sometime in October or November, perhaps, that same noise drifted over my neighbor’s low, gabled rooftops. This time, my friend and I discovered the source – the yakiimo truck (to which I refer as the “yakiimo lady”, as the recorded, looped song is sung by a woman). Sweet potatoes are a popular treat in the winter time here, although they can be found in supermarkets year-round, their sweet scents pervading the entire store. Unfortunately, they attract the older clientele, who poke and prod each yakiimo, despite the fact there’s a wrapper, with their shriveled, bony, gross, germ-infested fingers.

According to the fascinatingly named The Economic Aspects of the History of the Civilization of Japan, Volume 2, sweet potato was introduced to Japan in the early 1700s. So far, I’ve seen it used as the main ingredient for bread, as the aforementioned delicious treat, and as a substitution for rice in shochu, a Japanese spirit. It has also made frequent guest appearances in my kitchen skillet, coated in cinnamon.

On my hit list

It’s unbelievable that, during my unregrettable year here in Japanland, I’ve not yet tried takenoko (bamboo shoots) nor the common gobo, both the root and plant itself I’ve seen growing in the very city in which I currently live. I shall endeavor to try and savor these and more in my time here now, and, subsequently, shall bloglish my hereforthto unique experiences.

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