Kyoto pickles at Nishiki Market
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This versatile root vegetable, which is really a giant white radish, can now be commonly found at the better markets. It is delicious raw and is often seen shredded as a garnish to display pieces of sashimi, or grated alongside grilled fish, or chopped up and pickled in salt or flavored vinegar. While bitter when raw, the flavor mellows with cooking. My view of this humble vegetable changed when I was served a single hefty piece, simmered in light stock, at a vegetable restaurant in Kyoto's Nishiki Market. The expert preparation, while simple, yielded a rich flavor and buttery texture that was a revelation.


Gobo (burdock)
This long, fibrous root was first used in Japan as a form of medicine. Grown from seed sown in the spring, the edible roots, which can grow to three feet, are harvested in fall. Gobo has a bitter taste when raw, but mellows as it's cooked. It then has a distinctive earthy flavor which is hard to describe, and is often simmered with fish and sake, where it's distinctive flavor enriches the sauce. When cut into thin slices and stir-fried, as in kinpira gobo, it retains a nice crunchy texture. Rich in fiber, it is said to aid digestion and lowers cholesterol. Regular consumption is known to prevent diabetes.

Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin)
Introduced to Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese traders, the sweet and nutritious kabocha, together with the sweet potato, provided sustenance during the food shortages just after WWII, saving many Japanese from starvation. While kabocha conjures up memories of these hard times for my parents’ generation, younger people associate kabocha with elegant Kyoto cuisine, and it is widely loved. A little larger than a softball and just as dense, Kabocha has dark green skin and bright orange flesh. When cooked, it has a wonderfully rich, sweet flavor and an aroma redolent of chestnuts. I usually serve it simmered in flavored dashi, but sliced and deep-fried tempura is my absolute favorite way to enjoy kabocha. The sweetness seems to intensify with frying, and the creamy texture is a perfect counterpart to the crisp coating. It can also be mashed and formed into healthy sweets, or pureed for a deliciously creamy soup. The seeds can be roasted and served with salt. Kabocha is rich in vitamin A and beta-carotene. TOP

Kabu (turnip)
Kabu has been widely grown and consumed in Japan since the 7th century. There are many different varieties with different shapes, sizes and colors, and it's commonly eaten raw, marinated or pickled. The most common variety is much more delicate than the turnips you usually think of: beautifully smooth, white and round, a little larger than the size of golf balls. The light green leaves have jagged edges and can also be pickled or chopped up and enjoyed in salads or cooked in miso soup. The flavor is somewhat similar to daikon, but milder and the texture, softer. The roots are high in vitamin C and iron; the leaves are high in fiber, vitamin A, and calcium.


Kampyo (dried gourd ribbons)
This is a handy item to keep in the pantry, and is a useful ingredient for vegetarian sushi. The long, white ribbons, resembling string, are cut from gourds and dried. Sold in small plastic packages, they can keep for up to a year in a cool, dry place. Kampyo has very little flavor of its own, and is often simmered in flavored dashi for futomaki and other types of sushi. It is also used to tie around rolled kombu, for kombu maki, or to close the tops of fried tofu packets filled with vegetables.

Komatsuna (mustard spinach)
This nutritious and versatile hardy winter vegetable is starting to make an appearance in the west. Smaller and more delicate than mustard greens, with a flavor similar to spinach, the straight, long deep green leaves have a light green stem. Komatsuna contains far more vitamin C and carotene than spinach, and is believed to have cancer-fighting properties. I often stir-fry roughly chopped leaves lightly in vegetable (or olive oil) with a little garlic, salt and black or red pepper. TOP


Kyuri (Japanese cucumber)
Japanese cucumber is thin, crispy and not as watery or bitter as the varieties found in the West. If you can't find Japanese cucumber, use English cucumber or pickles. If your cucumber has a lot of seeds, it is best to remove them.

Mitsuba's bright, clean fragrance and intense flavor is unmistakable but hard to describe. This herb has a single stalk topped with three small, bright green leaves (hence, the name, which means “three leaves”). It is often used in clear soups, where its color intensifies and fills the bowl with its heady aroma, and is especially delicious steamed in chawan-mushi (savory custard.) A group of three stalks, lightly parboiled and tied in a loose knot, makes a beautiful presentation.

Native to Japan, particularly the Kyoto area, this green leafy vegetable is related to the turnip, which its leaves somewhat resemble. Bright and crunchy in texture, bursting with water (which it is named after). mizuna is best eaten raw in salad, or as an accompaniment to seafood, which benefits from its slightly bitter flavor. Its slender and straight stalks are white and crunchy and high in vitamin A and iron. I tend to think of mizuna as a cross between watercress and endive, and especially enjoy it in salads with sashimi. TOP

These lovely pink buds, which look like tiny lotus flowers, are from the ginger family. Myoga has a flavor similar to ginger, but is more fragrant, not as sharp or hot. It is also quite crunchy, and adds a nice and distinctive kick to salads or tsukemono (pickles). It can usually be found in Japanese markets.

Nappa (Chinese cabbage)
Nappa cabbage, or Hakusai, which means “white cabbage,” is widely available in Western grocery stores. Originally from China, it has been relied upon for sustenance over the long winter months because of its long shelf life, especially when pickled. It is the vegetable used most often in Korea as well, for the all-important fiery kimchee. Nappa was brought to Japan during the Meiji era by Japanese soldiers returning from the Japan-Russo war, and is now used widely in Japanese cuisine, appreciated for its low cost and versatility. Being rather bland, it is not one of my favorites, but I use it in hot pot dishes alongside shungiku, where it provides a nice contrast in color and texture. While rather uninteresting raw, pickling brings out a wonderfully crunchy yet springy texture.


Nasu (Japanese eggplant)
Originally from India, eggplant made its way to Japan from China in the 8th century. While there are many varieties of eggplant in Japan, including one round variety smaller than a golf ball, the most typical variety available in the west is bright purple, long and narrow. While nasu can be pickled, stir-fried, or simmered in miso soup, it is especially delicious grilled or roasted. Nasu has none of the bitterness that is sometimes found in western eggplants, but has a similar texture and flavor. TOP

Negi (Giant White Scallion)
Growing up, my mother always used scallion for sprinkling in miso soup, adding to natto, etc. It was only after traveling to Japan that I discovered negi. Although similar to scallion, I find negi to be more flavorful, with a substantial texture that holds up well to cooking in Sukiyaki. Plus, its’ large size makes it perfect for grilling on skewers for yakitori.


Renkon (lotus root)
The lotus is my favorite flower. It has long been a symbol for Buddhism, representing one’s spiritual path, for just as a lotus emerges from the murky depths of human desire, pain and suffering, it grows towards the light of wisdom, clarity and compassion, finally blooming into perfection. The root of this beautiful flower is eaten during the New Year’s celebration as a reminder of this Buddhist idea. Renkon can be found at Japanese markets, and are rather homely in their natural state, with a strange tubular shape and brown skin that is sometimes speckled and somewhat dirty-looking. However, peeling or scrubbing the skin reveals a pure, almost white interior. When sliced, its beautiful pattern of holes is revealed. Each New Year, my father holds up a slice to his eye and claims he can see his future. The texture is hard and very crunchy, and can either be boiled in seasoned dashi or cut into paper-thin slices for a simple, lovely and symbolic salad.


Sato-imo (taro)
This odd-looking root vegetable is available in Asian markets, where it is known as taro. Taro is typically long, and shaped like a sweet potato, with brown skin with fibers similar to coconut, which make it look hairy; the flesh is creamy white. The variety at Japanese markets is smaller and round, with tapered ends. The taste and texture is similar, and although it is cheaper at the Asian markets, I like the shape of the smaller variety. Sato-imo has a slippery texture and is a little difficult to peel. Some people find it irritating to the skin, so it’s best to wear gloves. I use a vegetable peeler in order to lose as little as possible, but in Japan, the ends are usually removed and the whole is cut into an attractive hexagon shape. Sato-imo is usually boiled in flavored dashi, or simmered for kenchin jiru, a type of miso soup that is so hearty it is more like a stew. TOP

Satsuma-imo (Japanese sweet potato)
I have yet to find a suitable substitute for satsuma-imo in western markets, so I usually buy them at the Japanese grocery. Satsuma potatoes are very sweet and their flesh, which is yellow, has the flavor and texture of chestnuts. They are delicious boiled and mashed with sugar syrup for kurikinton, a New Year's specialty, and can be made into various desserts. In Japan, sweet potato vendors serve piping-hot roasted satsuma-imo from pushcarts. You can replicate this at home by simply cooking them one at a time for several minutes in the microwave (make sure you poke several holes in the skin). During my parents’ generation, sweet potatoes were added to rice during the food shortages after World War II, which saved many people from starvation. The younger generation seems to have no inkling of this, as evidenced by the many specialty desserts made of the humble root vegetable, some of which cost $5 a piece.


Shiso or Ohba (perilla)
This annual herb has beautiful large leaves (in fact, it’s also known as Ohba, which means “big leaf”) with serrated edges. It is often found beneath, or in between slices of sashimi or sushi, and no wonder; its bright, fresh flavor, which somewhat resembles basil, but is impossible to describe, not only compliments oily fish such as maguro, but has added antiseptic benefits as well. My parents grow huge pots of green and red shiso, which readily reseed every year, providing an abundant supply during the summer and early fall. The red variety (more of a deep rose or purple) is used to color and flavor umeboshi. During summer, the edible flower buds of both varieties grace my parents' sushi platters, and I happily take home bundles of leaves to make tsukemono or ohba pesto. It can be a little pricey when purchased at Japanese markets, but we like the flavor so much that we buy it all year long.

Shungiku (chrysanthemum greens)
This edible variety of the hardy winter flower is thought to have arrived in Japan from China. The deep green leaves and stems resemble its ornamental cousin and have a pleasantly bitter flavor and a firm, substantial texture that stands up well to cooking in broth. It is a necessary ingredient in one-pot dishes such as sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. Although it is at its best in spring, (its name means spring chrysanthemum), shungiku is now available year-round at Asian grocery stores. However, I tend to associate it with winter, when the flower blooms and I turn to warming hot pot dishes such as yudofu. It is high in carotene and fiber. TOP

Takenoko (bamboo shoot)
Bamboo has long been celebrated in Japan, where it is one of the three auspicious plants referrred to as Sho chiku bai (sho = pine, chiku = bamboo, bai = plum). This quick-growing grass is used for building, baskets and food. The young and tender shoots of several varieties of bamboo are edible, and harvested in the spring. Six to 18" long, with a diameter of 3"-5”, the shoots appear above the ground in rounded cones, which are covered in layers of speckled brown skin that feels a lot like paper. Underneath, the flesh is creamy white and almost hollow in the center. Fresh shoots are hard to find in the west, but boiled and vacuum-packed shoots are available year round. Stay away from the canned variety, which can be briny. I like to slice bamboo shoots thinly and cook them with rice, or simmer thick rounds in lightly flavored dashi.


I hardly need to explain what wasabi is, since sushi has become a global hit. Some of my friends are positively addicted to the intense rush of cool heat that rushes up one's nose and causes brain freeze when one consumes too much wasabi. In Japan, wasabi is taken in modest amounts, so that it doesn't overpower, but enhances, whatever it graces. Wasabi is a perennial aquatic plant that used to grow wild in Japan's mountain streams. It is now grown commercially in the same environments. Although fresh wasabi is hard to find outside of Japan, and can be pricey, it's certainly worth trying if you ever come across it. The knobby stems grow about a foot tall, and are cut into 3" or 4" pieces. These are ground at the last minute to preserve freshness (the true way is to use a sharkskin grater.) For most of us, this is not an option, so luckily it also comes in tubes (I like the nama, or fresh, wasabi paste) or powder. I always keep both around the house. The tubes should be refrigerated after opening.


Yamaimo (mountain potato)
The nutritious and versatile yamaimo has been growing wild in the mountains of Japan since ancient times. Also known as naga imo (long potato) for its long shape (often 20" or more), it can also be found at a much better price at Chinese groceries. The tubers have thin, light brown skin and are often cut into shorter sections (with the ends dipped in sawdust) when sold in Japanese stores. The flesh is creamy white, with very little flavor or fragrance of its own, and is most valued for its texture, which is almost impossible to describe — picture biting into a lighter version of jicama, with each fresh, crunchy bite melting into slick creaminess. When grated, it forms a creamy, slimy sauce called tororo. This is flavored with sweetened soy sauce and served over rice, or added to dipping sauces for soba or udon. It is also delicious cut up and added to salads or sashimi. TOP

Yurine (lily root)
Lily root is virtually impossible to find outside of Japan, but I’ll provide a description in case you're ever lucky enough to find it. The bulbs are creamy white, with a faint pink tinge at the top, and resemble garlic. The small segments are separated and steamed or boiled along with other ingredients — yurine is usually not served alone. The flavor is mild and slightly sweet, the texture, creamy. TOP