Later as we took our last photos of mulberry trees and rice fields and contemplated the long train ride home, Ioryi-san pulled up in her car and dashed over to us with a small plastic bag. Inside were two seedlings of tsuru murasaki. "Try it and see what you think," she said.
Kept in pots on the balcony, those two little seedlings were felled by the double-whammy of a Tokyo summer and the neglect they experienced while we were hiking in Hokkaido. The leaves we regularly harvested for our house salads were delicious and welcome. (Summer in Tokyo provides a wide variety of vegetables, but not many of them are leafy and green.) Until this year, I never saw seedlings at local nurseries, but did find the leaves occasionally for sale at nearby farm stalls where just beyond it could be seen trellised and exuberantly growing.
Since then, I've met more farmer-surfers and more crazy vegetables. Last month, though, I spotted a small display of tsuru murasaki while shopping for something else at a nursery and snapped up two to set out in the new lasagna bed. A vining plant that also goes by the name Malabar Spinach Basella alba<> and Basella rubra , tsuru murasaki is a prolific grower that can reach heights of 14' or so. It prefers to be planted out anywhere from mid-May to mid-July, and can be harvested until cold weather knocks it flat. It might be a good choice for a green curtain, but a sturdy net and poles would be required. The vine is rather thick with a number of spreading tendrils, and full of weighty leaves that resemble Swiss Chard in miniature.
With a taste reminiscent of spinach, tsuru murasaki is often eaten in salads, tempura, lightly steamed with a bit of soy sauce, or tossed into soups. Regardless of how it's ingested, this nutritious bit of green leafy goodness when there is little of that to be had. (It's also said to be good at managing blood sugar levels for diabetics.) That said, there's plenty of other great things to eat in Japan in summer (just visit any farmers market), but for salad fanatics like us, the leaf is what we love best!