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Japanese Winter Root Crops, A Primer

Freshly harvested kabu waiting for dinner.
Inspired by the two part series on Japanese winter greens, I've decided to carry on and do a short piece on winter root crops. Certainly, there are more root crops around than those covered here, but I decided to stick with a seasonal focus. Since this is mainly what people will be seeing when they venture out to the markets this time of year, it seemed sensible to cover them now. Other root crops can also be found - satoimo (taro), satsumaimo (sweet potato), for example - but others are at their best or, at least, slightly different from their warmer weather versions.

The standard daikon in all its glory.
Daikon is, as I've mentioned before, just daikon. People sometimes want to translate it into radish, but the radish I think of first and foremost is small, red, and often spicy. Daikon is, in its most common form, none of these. Daikon is often large or relatively large, white, and not spicy. Some varieties do come with red, green, or purple skins with interior flesh ranging from snow white to a starburst of color inside. Long and tubby, short and slightly rotund, or long and thin, daikon is often a feast for the eyes as well as the tastebuds.

Another spectacular daikon specimen.
I so want to make carrot daikon pickles with this.
Wouldn't that just be beautiful?!?
And while it is incredibly beautiful, daikon is also incredibly versatile. It can be served oroshi (grated) as a companion for tempura or  pickled in komenuka (rice bran) for a tangy side dish. Cut into long thing strips and dried it makes a very nice addition to soup or it can be pickled whole in sake kasu to then be eaten with rice. The greens are a wonderful treat, especially when thinning seedlings in a process called mabiki, in salad or soup. I've also made a Western-style pickle that is no slouch, either. It also makes a fine asazuke.

A Beauty Heart radish.
Joy Larkcom writes in Oriental Vegetables (Frances Lincoln, 2007) that daikon originated in China and arrived in Japan about a thousand years ago. The Japanese, for all intents and purposes, fell in love with this vegetable and went on to develop a series of distinct types suited to the particular climate and soil the farmer had. As a result, daikon is a staple of nearly every Japanese kitchen year round.

A farmer friend in Aizu Wakamatsu, Takako Kimura, tells me that her summer daikon are different than her winter daikon. In summer, the plants tend to grow faster and be spicier, while the winter varieties take their time, growing sweeter with each passing day. Regardless of the season, we crunch on them raw in our salads, softened in soup, or dipped in miso as a favorite party snack.

Hinonan kabu at the Earth Day Farmers Market.
Kabu are, like daikon, a world and a word unto themselves. While often dubbed a Japanese turnip, these little round lovelies are nothing like their Western counterparts. Kabu tend to be soft with a taste as sweet as butter. (See the very top photo to get an idea of what they look like.) They range in size from slightly larger than a ping-pong ball to larger than a baseball. Some traditional varieties get even larger - about the size of a basketball - although these are rare now. Lovely raw, in soup, or pickled, kabu is well worth experimenting with, including the greens. Our neighbor likes to saute them up for breakfast.

There are, of course, exceptions to the usual white varieties seen in stores. Kabu can also be red, the most famous of these that I've met so far being Hida Takayma's akakabu (red kabu), pink or some variation on these. They make an excellent pickle although I've eaten them raw in salad and not regretted a moment. Some varieties, like the Hinona kabu from Kansai, look more like a young daikon with their long thin roots.

Where the kabu exactly originated seems to be something of a mystery. Logic says that it evolved from an Indian ancestor that wandered around the globe over the course of the last millenia, adapting to climates and soils everywhere. European turnips turned rather stoic and tough in the face of winter, while the Japanese varieties clearly leaned toward the sweet and gentle. That's just my theory, though. Even within Japan a vast number of regional varieties exist, but they are not well-known. Don't be shy to ask after them when out and about or to outright purchase them. It's the buying and eating and storytelling of these vegetables that keeps them alive for future generations.

Next week: Recommended reading for the Japanese vegetable shopper


Leslie said…
The kabu sounds and looks very similar to the German vegetable Mairübchen (little May turnip). Here is a photo:

However, since I haven't tried kabu, I'm not sure. Do you think it could be the same vegetable? The Bierrettich (beer radish) aka Weißer Rettich (white radish) here in Germany is also pretty much the same as the Daikon I've seen and eaten in Japan; at least, I haven't been able to figure out a difference yet and I use the German radish to make kimchi and Japanese dishes.
Leslie, it does look the same. What is the inside like? The kabu is soft and tender, not woody or fibrous at all. It cuts very easily. The Wikipedia entry says it should be peeled before being eaten, which is not the case here. That may just be a custom, though. (Japanese people, for example, peel grapes. I eat them whole.)

A quick comparison of their Latin names makes it look as though they are very, very close cousins. How exciting! Daikon and the Beer Radish you mentioned above appear to have the same relationship. Now, I want to come to Germany to try them...
Leslie said…
Hi Joan, the Mairube / Mairübchen is also very tender and quite sweet and juicy. I eat it raw, with its leaves, in a salad. I do peel it but the skin is soft enough that you could eat it if you really wanted to.

Here are some large turnips I photographed in Kyoto last year around the New Year; they were almost as big as my head! Do you think these are also kabu?

The beer radish is served in raw, salted slices as a bar snack in Bavarian beer halls. This is called "Raditeller" (radish plate). However, I prefer to eat it cooked or pickled in Japanese or Korean recipes. Unfortunately, the German radishes are usually sold with the greens removed, so I have not been able to make daikon-green rice with them.
Hi Leslie, I would say yes, they are kabu. I've met some rather large ones myself, also in Kyoto, and was also surprised to learn they were kabu. This weekend I met a lovely one called koshin, which is like the beauty heart daikon: green outer skin and pink starburst flesh that had a bit of a kick. I think it would make a stunning pickle.

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