Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Komatsuna: A Lovely Japanese Green

Komatsuna nearly ready to harvest!
When I first arrived in Japan nearly four years ago, I had no idea what I might discover in terms of vegetables. I suspected I would find a fascinating variety of old and new, and so I did. Broccoli and cabbage, old friends from way back, greeted me on a first foray to the grocery store and at the first neighborhood market I stumbled upon, as did potatoes and onions. But there were plenty of odd looking things  - roots, greens, mushrooms and more - that I didn't recognize at all. In our Michigan life we ate buckets of salads and piles of kale. I saw some leafy things, but had no idea what they were. I bought and chopped, oblivious to names and recipes and traditions. All were delicious, but I felt a bit rude not knowing what to call them.

Thankfully, I started helping at the farm where the farmers began teaching me not just about urban farming in Tokyo, but about the vegetables we grew. Komatsuna, a leafy green we grow in the winter months in Tokyo, was one of my first new friends, and remains a favorite. Originally developed in Edo (Tokyo's former name), komatsuna was formally named when a visiting shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune (the very same one famous for planting maples and cherries in our fair city), stopped for a meal at a temple. Loving this new vegetable nearly as much as I do, he asked its name. The story goes that the monk answered that it had no name; it was just a green they grew and ate regularly. Like any shogun worth his salt, Yoshimune immediately righted the situation. Taking the name of the nearby river, Komatsu, and adding 'na' at the end, which means 'leaf' he bapitized it with the moniker it still goes by today.

Rightly so, Joy Larkcom in her ever useful tome, Oriental Vegetables: The Complete Guide for the Gardening Cook, refers to komatsuna and its compatriots as candidates for  '...the 'most underrated vegetable' award." She goes on to say that "They are among the hardiest and most productive winter vegetables I have come across, their flavour a happy compromise between the blandness of cabbage and the sharpness of most Oriental mustards. They are also very easy to grow."  

While I take some umbrage with 'the blandness of cabbage', I otherwise agree wholeheartedly. Brasisica rapa var. perviridis, komatsuna's Latin name, is possibly Japan's most beloved member of the mustard family. It's lovely roundish emerald green leaves sit atop perfectly juicy stems. Usually the whole plant is harvested, snipped off just above the roots. We eat raw in salads - stem and all - or leave it roughly chopped in the bottom of a soup bowl. Whatever steaming brew is on the menu for the evening cooks it just enough to make it even more verdant and flavorful while still maintaining some of its characteristic crunch. As a member of the mustard family it has a wee bit of a flavor punch, but nothing extreme.

At the farm we do multiple sowings of this winter favorite - a row or two every other day - under row covers and in the greenhouses. It's a major ingredient in the I've-eaten-too-much-over-the-holidays concoction called Nanakusagayu as well as other winter dishes. Late plantings are left to flower and can be turned into a version of a well-known spring dish, nanohana, or simply pickled. Surely this originated out of a desire to save seed for the following years as well as provide a green to tide folks over until summer crops arrived. When those last leaves are harvested and the plants composted in late spring, I weep a little inside. It really is that good.

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