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Japanese Winter Greens: A Primer, Part Two

Hakusai (chinese cabbage) waiting for a turn at the kimchi.
Look for Japanese Winter Vegetables: A Primer, Part One here!

In Tokyo, winter brings brilliant blue skies, blazing sunshine, and crystal clear views of Mount Fuji in the west. It also, thankfully, brings a wonderful array of winter vegetables - root and leaf crops - that make me believe it is the true season of bounty here. Yes, summer may have its tomatoes, beans, sweet corn, and eggplant, but they are nothing compared to the rich, mouth-watering ones of winter.

Last week I introduced a variety of greens - komatsuna, mizuna, wasabina, and karashina - and this week I plan to finish up the list. That said, I am sure there are more lurking out there along with delicious local varieties of these. Don't be shy to give a shout with any you know of! Don't be shy. One of the best ways to ensure that these vegetables have a future is to grow them, cook them, eat them, and share stories of how beloved they are with others. For the plants and for us, it's a win-win situation!

Chingensai (pak choi) ready for the salad bowl.
Chingensai (pak choi) is technically a Chinese green, but Japan does a nice job serving it up, too. Word has it that it arrived on these fair isles early in the 20th century after a series of nasty little wars. Given the long relationship between the two countries, I suspect chingensai has been here longer than that. Related to and sometimes called 'Chinese cabbage', this plant has a decidedly different look. Thick stems that crunch nicely in salads and keep their snappiness in soups and stir-fry's are topped with leaves to green it's difficult not to just outright bite them. At the end of the season I've blanched overgrown stalks the farmers can't sell, sealed them up in bags in the freezer, and had very nice soup and miso additions until the following season. Like it's tubbier cousin (see below), chingensai's flavor is pleasant without being at all strong.

Shungiku seedlings. For a better photo see this recipe.
Shungiku (edible chrysanthemum greens) possess a very distinct flavor that folks either love or hate. I love it, but then I'm a fool for green leafy things in general. I eat it raw in salad as well as blanched and tossed with sesame seeds, but most Japanese people would think I'm mad to eat it raw. (Too hard on the digestive system, they say.) It makes an excellent addition to soup or stir-fry, as most of these do, and is very easy to grow, which is why it has managed to make its way all the way here from its homeland in the Mediterranean. An excellent source of potassium, it should be mentioned that folks may want to try a little at first. It is a member of the chrysanthemum family, which is where pyrethrum, a natural insecticide, comes from. They are distinct branches of the same family, but if one is particularly sensitive it may be best to choose another delectable green at the farmers market.

Hakusai (Chinese cabbage) is the aforementioned tubby cousin of chingensai. Also known as Napa cabbage in the United States, hakusai is a light-hearted version of its squat, thick-leaved European cousin: cabbage. The lighter leaves make for wonderful kimchi, tasty nabe (Japanese winter hot pot), scrumptious quick pickles, and wonderful salads. As its English name says, hakusai comes originally from China and is one of that country's oldest vegetables. It's uncanny ability to store well throughout the winter made it a pantry staple that afforded plenty of vitamin C. Another easy to grow winter vegetable, hakusai, especially if well mulched, delights in cooler weather.

There are other greens out there - rukkora (arugula) and hourensou (spinach), for example - but my hunch is that folks can find and recognize those just fine. Although, some Japanese spinach varieties do have a lovely red base, which might throw shoppers off. (It is often served up with the greens in ohitashi for a lovely dash of color.) And then there is norabo, another distinct green with kale-like leaves that loves cold weather, and is often grown in the mountains west of here. More on that one later.

Where to Find Seeds
The best way, if possible, to learn about these greens is to grow them. Listed below are possible seed sources, although it is possible to simply wander over to a nursery and find a rack full of them. Meanwhile, here are a couple places to do some shopping just now if you like.

Tanenomori Seed Company is based here in Japan, and while their selection isn't vast it's quite solid. Greens start on page 7 of the catalog pdf. It is all in Japanese, but a little patience should get it sorted. Natural and organic farmers I know consistently recommend them, although seed-swapping is also a very common practice.

Johnny's is another US seed company specializing in organic seeds and organic farming supplies. They carry a nice and ever-expanding selection of Asian greens, catering especially to those interested in growing salad greens.

Kitazawa Seed Company is based in California, their seeds are of wonderful quality and come with good descriptions. Each year their collection seems to grow with added varieities of old favorites and new additions.

Seed Savers Exchange is based in Iowa, some of the flattest and most fertile land my fair United States has to offer, and is home to an excellent selection of heirloom seeds.

Next week: Japanese winter root crops!


Ruth said…
Thanks for this list--I love it. And thanks also for the warning that shungiku/chrysanthemum greens could cross-react with pyrethrums. Two other plants that some people (like me) are allergic to and are in the same broad pyrethrum family are chamomile and ragweed. So if you are already allergic to chamomile or ragweed you might want to be careful with the chrysanthemum greens as well.
You are most welcome, Ruth! And thanks for the information on the other two plants, too. Stay warm!

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