Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Just discover your blog. Thank you for explaining this green and origin of the name.

Popular posts from this blog

Finding Heirloom Seeds in Japan

Drying pods of heirloom Hutterite Soup Beans. Since moving to Japan eight years ago, one of my greatest challenges as a farmer-gardener has been to find heirloom or open-pollinated seeds. The majority of seeds available are not GMO (genetically modified organisms) as Japan, at this point, doesn't accept this material. Most seeds, though, are nearly all F1 varieties. Heirloom and F1 Varieties In plant breeding, F1 is the name given to the first generation of a cross between two true breeding parents. For example, if I decide to cross an Amish Paste Tomato with another heirloom variety tomato such as Emmy, in hopes of getting a gold paste tomato, the resulting generation of fruit is F1. In order to get that tomato of my culinary dreams, I'll need to choose members of that first generation that are headed in a direction I like - early ripening, medium-sized fruit, good taste - and save their seeds. I'll plant them and repeat the process again and again over time unti

Satoimo: One of Japan's Favorite Slimy Things

Satoimo in all their hairy glory. This post first appeared in slightly different form on Garden to Table as part of the 2012  Blogathon . The website has since moved on to the ether, but the post is still a good one. After all, people here are still eating satoimo on a daily basis, and many others are just seeing these little potato-like objects for the first time. Enjoy! Satoimo is one of Japan's odder vegetables. Under it's rough, slightly furry skin is white flesh that is a little bit slimy even raw, and with a gentle nutty flavor.* Baked, grilled, steamed with dashi, or deep-fried satoimo stands well on its own or paired up with other vegetables and meats in a wide variety of soups and stews . (The leaves are also edible.) Satoimo stores well, and like any root crop worth the effort, stocks are just running low on this household favorite as the farmers in my area of Tokyo get ready to put a new crop in the ground in May. I cannot say I was a fan of this l

Goma Ai Shingiku - Sesame and Chrysanthemum Greens

Last week I had the pleasure of helping some friends work in their parents garden not too far away. Tucked behind the house, the garden sits on a former house lot. When it came up for sale about five years ago, my friend's father jumped at the chance. Open land in Tokyo can be hard to find and expensive, but for a retired professional looking for a little spot to till in the city it was an opportunity to good to pass up. Now, it is a garden to envy. As we came through the gate rose, lily, and peony blooms greeted us with great shouts of color while rows of vegetables stood tidily at attention on the sunny center stage. Small fruit trees along with one of the biggest sansho trees I've seen yet stood quietly here and there. Near waist-high sweet corn, bushy young potato plants, cherry tomatoes, eggplants, and beans were preparing their summer fruits, while a handful of still quite luscious looking winter vegetables like komatsuna, mizuna, and kabu held one last ro