Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ebisu Farmer's Market: Savoring the Story

Visiting farmer's markets is perhaps more important now than ever. With that in mind, I'm reposting and linking to a handful of pieces I've written about markets in and around Tokyo. Know of other markets or have an experience to share? Let me know! I'm always up for a new market to visit!

Farmer's markets seem to be springing up like seeds in warm spring soil. Tokyo boasts a total of twelve, including all of Marche Japon and the Earth Day Market. Throw in smaller off-shoot markets such as Shinonome, and it becomes more than possible to find fresh food generously mixed with fun on any given weekend with a minimum amount of train-wrangling.

One of the more pleasant of these is the Ebisu Market. A small market - roughly twenty vendors under half as many tents visible from the Ebisu Station Garden Walkway and at the entrance to Ebisu Garden Place - there was plenty to choose from for a weeks shopping and plenty of company, too. A certain kind of enthusiasm emerges when people spy a cluster of tables showcasing vegetables and fruit. It seemed not to matter that the location was a wee bit trendy or that some shoppers were wearing rather fancy gear for their day-off outing. For one woman, I believe, 'Give me daikon or give me death!' might be an appropriate life motto.

Fueled by continuing concerns over food safety, food security, and a desire to live a more eco-centric life customers arrive at the table looking for the perfect ingredient. Not surprisingly, it's often the same concerns that put the grower or produceer on the other side, too. Certainly, pelnty of fresh fruit and vegetables can be found at a local supermarket or delivered right to your door by one of the myriad services available. New stores such as SUN Grocery and Koenji's little corner market join ranks with neighborhood vegetable stalls to make fresh food available on a daily basis.

Yet, there is something irrefutably satisfying about buying right from the grower. Maybe it's the recipe that often comes with the slightest prodding or learning the story of the grower or producer themselves. Seeing the weathered face of the person who can give a detailed biography of the fruit or vegetable in question, most likely even including its ancestry, makes the trip worth the time and effort. It makes everything taste a little bit better, too. American poet and philosopher Wendell Berry states that food with a story tastes better. I believe he might just be right.

The Ebisu Market presented us with the usual seasonal suspects - hearty winter greens, glowing kaki (persimmons), mikan, and early yuzu - along with a selection of mushrooms, orange and purple carrots, a grand variety of daikon and kabu, sweet potatoes, and apples. It was lovely, and despite having a refrigerator drawer still rather full from a week working on the farm, my shopping bag began to fill fast. I'm a self-proclaimed vegetable otaku, and it shows every time I come home from the market.

Initially drawn to one stall by a display holding hundreds of small brown balls, we met Noriko and Unikyo Sakyoen of Sakyoen Teas. The samll balls were a sample not of the eating kind, but rather of the growing kind. Light as a feather and rough to the touch, they bobbled about easily in our hands as Sakyoen-san advised me how to plant them. Photographs of their rolling tea fields in Shizouka shimmered as green as the tea displayed before us. Hearing him speak of growing the tea from seed as well as managing the fields, it is clearly a passion in their household, and it's no surprise. Sakyoen-san and his son are the twelfth and thirteenth generation, respectively, of their family to grow tea on this land. I can't help but think of all those generations of people and hands farming and working together each time I drink a cup. How can I not?

We stopped to visit another vendor selling what I at first took to be gobo (burdock root), but instead turned out to be Jinenjyo. Grown for upwards of five years or more the potatoes are impressively thin and long, and are served as part of a number of traditional Japanese dishes. About as fat as my thumb but possible as tall as me (I'm about 180 cm if I practice proper posture), the potatoes grow wild but clearly can be cultivated for sale. Their vines with arrow-shaped leaves twine about above ground almost as much again. Quite challenging to harvest without breaking them off, they weren't cheap but they were impressive.

A third table of the many we perused that day encouraged us to try some dried natto out on our tastebuds. A somewhat rare food-find now in Japan, we sampled organic beans with the distinct sour tang of natto but dry and crunchy. According to the Natto Earth Club vendors, dried natto was only made in Ibaraki-kin. It purports to be a fantastic source of all the same great things natto is, but without the slime. As I crunched and chatted with my companions and the vendor, I discovered another food tradition of this place I am coming to call home. I would never have learned this in the supermarket.

Whether looking for an old favorite like winter squash or searching out something adventurous (like dried natto!), farmer's markets are one of the best places to begin. Let the story unfold!

This story first appeared at greenz on November 26th, 2010.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fading Cherry Blossoms

Somehow, we missed hanami - the cherry blossom season. It could have been our trip north to Niigata to Animal Garden or it could have been an assortment of other things. Regardless, the blossoms are rapidly being replaced by tiny green leaves as the days continue to warm.

Now, as I pedal down the street on errands or to visit friends, a shower of pale pink petals falls through the air. Reminiscent of snow when those first flurries begin floating down to mark the beginning of that other, much colder season, these mark the beginning of that other, much hotter season. There's even a matching undercurrent of heat in the air and a change in scent that tells me Summer is awake and making her way our direction. People regularly sweep them up as they do leaves in fall, but they keep right on coming often even as the sweeper works. Half-filled bags of fading blossoms sit near doorways with the broom close at hand. As for me, I've never seen the gutters look so pretty.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Osaka Farmers Market Video

Just before we left Osaka to return home to Tokyo, we visited a farmer's market I'd heard about while we there in January. I was able to make it to three others, but since it was just after New Year's, many of the markets weren't open then. (New Year's in Japan is like Christmas in the West. Essentially, everything shuts down so people can celebrate the holiday with family and friends.) I was also eager to get back into the groove of markets here since we'd spent February in America and the earthquake and my leg injury threw off most of our other plans for March.

The Odona Market did not disappoint, of course, and you can read all about my adventures there at this post at Summer Tomato. We also took this short video (my first and surely not the best you'll ever see) to offer up some of the sound and feel of the market on this early spring evening.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Gone to Seed

Technically, the winter crops should all be out of the garden and the beds prepared for the summer crops that will soon be seeded or leafed out as seedlings in a greenhouse somewhere. Well, I'm not exactly there. Some summer crops and flowers - Brandywines, morning glories, cardinal climber, cucumbers, and calendula - are sun-bathing on our balcony even as I type, and working up their strength for a summer of fun at the farm or on our back balcony as a green curtain.

The beds, though, are not prepared. I struggle during each seasonal transition to remove plants from the garden that are technically still producing and healthy.The farmers encourage me to do so to ensure crops are started in a timely manner, and because they think about my garden like a miniature farm. I think about it like a garden, hence, the garden still houses a handful of winter vegetables: broccoli producing side shoots now; kale going like mad; hearty leaves of swiss chard; and mizuna and komatsuna nearly as tall as me and in flower.

And what magnificent blooms they are, I must say! Their scent is utterly extraordinary - reminiscent of lilacs but more subtle- and their bright yellow is charming. The farmer's shake their heads at me and passersby do a bit more than hint that these greens are too big to eat, but I still keep them. (The leaves and flowers are quite edible, actually, although the lower leaves aren't overly attractive.) Despite the pressure to remove them, what's got me really dragging my garden gloves is the sight of so many bees and insects working amongst them. I've never seen so many in my garden, and I'm delighted. I'm even considering planting more of these vegetables elsewhere and letting them go to seed to keep those pollinators happy. And to enjoy a few more small bites of some of our favorite greens in salads, too.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Better Late than Never: Seeds Potted Up!

Our month in America followed in short order by a strained Achilles and Soleus muscle, the earthquake, and a trip to Osaka, means I've gotten a bit behind on garden work both at the farm and on our balconies. While I've managed to get a bit of tidying done at the farm garden, there's still plenty to do:
  • a yuzu tree that is looking to move to a larger pot with some spruced up soil
  • empty window boxes that need to be prepped with green curtain fixings
  • seeds that need to be started for the garden as well as the green curtain
  • garden diagrams to be drawn up with a list of crops for this year (need to reference garden journal to make sure I get the rotation right)
  • a compost bin to build so I can...
  • turn over the compost in the bin
Sunday's task, though, was to get some seeds started. Potted up and sun-bathing in our bay window even as I type are pots of cardinal climber, calendula, and Brandywine tomatoes. Next up will be some chili seeds my gardening partner from Singapore likes, cilantro, morning glories, cucumbers, and zucchini. And maybe one or two more. Once I get going, it's hard to stop.