A Sip Of Matcha

Published: Monday December 22, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday December 22, 2014 MYT 7:28:44 AM

Out of shape veggies prove their worth

Misshapen vegetables and fruits taste just as good, and they are cheaper, too.

SOME years back, I used to patronise a makeshift vegetable stall in the compound of a farmer’s storehouse near our rented apartment before my family shifted out.

During a visit to Fujimaki-san’s stall, I was amazed to see jumbo-sized lemons. Each cost five times more than a regular-size lemon. He laughed at me when I came back with my lemon to compare sizes for a snapshot.

Misshapen vegetables and fruits are usually regarded as flawed and do not sell well. Once, Fujimaki-san had an odd-shaped daikon. Four white radishes were attached to the stem, making them look like a bunch of bananas. There were no takers for the misshapen daikon, so its price was halved the following day.

Speaking of daikon, an extraordinary shaped daikon from Ume Mama Konsai Noka (a root vegetable farm) in Hyogo prefecture hogged the limelight in autumn 2012. It appeared on TV, and its pictures were posted on the Internet. It was even photo-documented into a book and reportedly sold as a “garage kit” (figure for assembly) at Tokyo Wonder Festival 2013. What’s more, its picture was released on a 2013 calendar. The radish looked like it had sprouted a pair of running legs, and was aptly dubbed Nigeru Daikon (“Running Away Radish”). That cute daikon initially went viral via the farm’s Twitter. It created such a sensation that it was retweeted more than 30,000 times.

In the Yomiuri Shimbun report last month, farmers in Kyoto promoted misshapen vegetables by coming up with monikers for these veggies or naming them after famous places. And in some cases, there is a story behind its shape.

A pumpkin shaped like a bottle gourd was called Shishigatani kabocha. Regular pumpkin seeds were first brought in by a resident from Tsugaru (the present Aomori prefecture) during the Bunka era (1804-1818). Two farmers then planted the seeds in Shishigatani at Sakyo Ward, Kyoto. The pumpkins mysteriously morphed into gourd-like shapes with bumps on their skins. Since only its lower part contains the seeds, it has more flesh, thus making it popular.

The name, Shogoin daikon, has been bestowed on a turnip-shaped daikon. During the Bunsei era (1818-1830), a local farmer received ordinary daikon that Owari Province (now part of Aichi prefecture) had presented to a temple in Shogoin, Sakyo Ward. When he started to grow daikon from the seeds he collected from some large tasty ones, the shape of the daikon changed to that of a white turnip. Perhaps this was due to the clayey soil in Shogoin.

A carrot which resembles a pair of legs.
A carrot which resembles a pair of legs.

Ebi imo was named after a type of long taro that is curved and striped like a prawn.

A type of slim, green, sweet pepper became known as Fushimi togarashi. Formerly grown mostly in Fushimi, the peppers are currently cultivated throughout Kyoto.

Horikawa gobo, a locally grown burdock, came about by accident. In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (a powerful warlord) constructed a lavish palace, Jurakudai, which was later destroyed. After his death in 1598, the moat around the ruins of the palace became a dumping ground in the Edo period (1603-1867), and enormous burdocks grew there.

Local farmers started replanting their burdocks horizontally at the seedling stage to get the distinct elongated shape and thickness. Kyoto farmers considered misshapen vegetables a specialty and turned them into a business opportunity by studying how to reproduce them. Upon requests, they have delivered these vegetables across Japan.

When I first came across shishi-yuzu (“lion yuzu”) at a grocery store, I was intrigued. Even my mother-in-law had not heard of that aromatic citron. Unlike the common yuzu, this yuzu from Chiba prefecture was huge and had knobby skin.

Recently, it was reported that Hachijo lemons would be sold in stores at Hachijojima Island in Tokyo from the end of this month. The lemons were said to have grown there before World War II, but the unfavourable wind conditions caused unstable produce.

A Japanese radish which resembles a bunch of bananas.
Japanese radish which resembles a bunch of bananas.

After farmers began to use optimal vinyl greenhouses in 2010, they successfully produced the lemons and started to sell them under the island’s name. The lemon is three times the size of normal lemons. The skin is edible and not bitter.

I do not mind buying misshapen agricultural produce as the prices are normally marked down in my area. In fact, I find their shapes amusing and I think up names for them.

In a packet of potatoes I bought, two potatoes were in an embrace like lovers. Another potato had five “toes”. Bigfoot, I wondered. Then there was this “walking carrot”. Well, they all ended up in my Japanese curry and tasted good.

One orange bell pepper looked unusual. I cut it open and ta-da! “Mother Pepper” was pregnant with four “babies”. And oh, my head lettuce had a smaller lettuce atop. So “Samurai Lettuce” provided more greens for me.

It’s a waste to discard misshapen vegetables and fruits. To me, they are food and pieces of art.

Sarah Mori, a Malaysian married to a Japanese, resides in Japan.

A Sip of Matcha draws to a close with this last instalment.

Tags / Keywords: japan, daikon, vegetables

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