Monday, February 24, 2014

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 little potato when we first arrived five years ago, but after meeting it so many times in such a variety of places I now find myself craving it. Satoimo, aka the taro root, is mostly just a good starch that differs from jagaiimo (regular potatoes) in texture. It is found most often in miso or stews where it acts as a tasty, low-calorie filler. The Japanese like a good bit of neba neba (an onomatopoeia that stands for slick, slimy stringy texture that to most Westerners is a sign it's time to pop that item in the compost bin) in their food, which can be a texture obstacle for foreigners. A variety of mushrooms, seaweeds, yamaimo (mountain yam), and other vegetables are revered for their inherent sliminess or, as in the case of grated yamaimo (tororo), their ability to become even slimier with a bit of fussing. (My personal theory is that it helps with another cultural obsession: digestion. It smooths out the process, if you get my drift.)

Satoimo falls somewhere between the stringy slurpiness of tororo and okra. It's slimy, but not in a way that puts one in mind of slugs or a bad sinus infection. Added late to a dish or cooked by itself for a reasonable amount of time, the sliminess stays to a minimum. I add it to a favorite kale and sausage soup recipe instead of regular potatoes with good success. Regular potatoes are available here (there are some in the garden even now), but I seem to be developing a certain penchant for slimy foods these days. For example, natto (fermented soy beans with serious neba neba qualities and an odor reminiscent of Limburger left in the sun too long) is a staple item in our home for mixing with rice as a good source of protein. I've even come to like the taste and not mind the sticky, stringiness of it.

Satoimo in July in Tokyo.
Farmers tend to hill up satoimo like any potato planting, creating a long ridge that by season's end will have beautifully huge leaves on thick green stalks swaying above. (The leaves bear a strong resemblance to Elephant Ears Colocasia esculenta, a somewhat common houseplant, which are smaller and definitely not edible.) Hilling is helpful, as satoimo likes to keep its feet cool when grown on dry land. It can also be grown in wet conditions such as rice fields or swamps. Grown in Japan since the Joumon Period, roughly 14,000 B.C to 300 B.C., satoimo preceded rice as the staple crop of choice. A compost-rich soil kept evenly moist and well-mulched should see a harvest in about six months from the time of planting.

Kale, Sausage and Satoimo Soup
1 bunch of kale, any variety, chopped, stems included
½ cup lentils
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 onion, roughly chopped
½ tbsp. Olive oil
1 tbsp. dashi**
4 satoimo, peeled and cut into bite size pieces***
Sausage of choice, cut into bite size pieces (check label for amount)

Heat olive oil in sauce pan and toss in onion. Cook covered until the onions begin to get soft, then toss in garlic, lentils, sausage, and potatoes. Give them all a good stir until thoroughly mixed, and let cook for a bit until the sausage browns some. Throw in the kale and let cook covered for a bit until the greens begin to wilt. Then add enough water to cover the works and throw in the dashi for good flavor measure. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the potatoes are soft and the lentils at the ready. Serve it up!

*Nibble only cooked satoimo. The raw flesh is slightly toxic, but cooking removes it.
**Dashi is a common Japanese cooking ingredient made from bonito and konbu. It has been the saving grace of my soup-making as it adds a bit of salt and good flavoring.
***Japan tends to leave the pieces rather large – an inch of so in size – for easy grabbing with chopsticks. I do the same whether implementing a spoon or chopsticks for two reasons. I'm a little lazy, so the less chopping the better, and because I like a chunky soup.

4 comments:

Leslie said...

I really enjoyed this post on satoimo. I didn't know the phrase "nabu nabu" for sticky slimy food. I do like kale and potato soup, so maybe I'll try it with taro if I come upon some.

Did you know that the taro root is central to the creation myth of the native Hawaiian people?! They call it Kalo.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalo_in_Hawaii

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Thanks, Leslie! Sorry for the late reply. It's been a crazy month of moving and sorting and trying to begin settling in. :)

Betty J. said...

Where can I buy in the united states or order satoimo

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Good question. I would try Kitazawa Seed Company for starters or research the scientific name. I would also hunt for farmers who sell them at farmers markets - most likely along the West Coast - and see if they would be willing to sell you a mother tuber. Good luck and let me know how it goes!