The Japanese Table Back Issues
The Virtues of Kyoto Vegetablesby Daizo Tanaka
Festooning grocer's and supermarket shelves throughout Japan's seasons, domestically grown vegetables are beautiful in shape and color and of immense variety - sometimes exquisite enough to be works of art in themselves and highly regarded for their flavor and uniformity of shape.
Among Japan's rich variety of produce, "Kyoto vegetables" (kyo-yasai), in particular, are considered superior, and special sections are often set aside in markets throughout the country for these products, prized for their distinctive flavor and place in the national diet.
Other than a few vegetables indigenous to the archipelago, such as myoga (mioga, a variety of ginger) and seri (water dropwort), the largest category of Japanese vegetables is made up of those introduced from overseas. The latter can be divided into two broad groups, depending on when they were introduced. One group includes satoimo (taro), negi (Welsh onion), kabu (turnip), daikon (giant radish), and nasu (eggplant), which were brought into Japan from China and Korea between the fifth and twelfth centuries. They became well-established crops all over the country and played an important role as side dishes in Japan's rice-based diet.
The other group are the "Western vegetables," introduced during the latter half of the Meiji period (1868-1912) and including tomatoes, green peppers, lettuce and cabbage. Consumption of these varieties, largely as salad vegetables, spread with the Westernization of the diet that took place from that time onward.
Kyoto vegetables are of the earlier introduced category, and cultivation of some of them go back to the Nara period (710-784). In 1987, it was decided that vegetables grown within Kyoto Prefecture since before the Meiji period could be labeled "traditional Kyoto vegetables," and this included some 34 varieties among the 17 species. The best known include: ebiimo, the large taro potato whose tip curves like a shrimp's tail; kujyonegi, a variety of long onion with tender greens; shogoin kabu, a grapefruit-sized turnip; kamo nasu, a large, round eggplant; shogoin daikon, the giant radish species favored in a hot dish called furofuki-daikon (simmered radish); shishigatani kabocha, a large, gourd-shaped squash; and kyo-takenoko, mild-tasting bamboo shoots.
Kyoto prospered as the capital of ancient Japan for more than one thousand years after the emperor Kanmu built his palace there in 794. During that time, the city became the center of all things of excellence, whether it was people, arts, products, information or know-how, and distinctively Kyoto-style culture and arts were cultivated there. Vegetables were as much a part of this culture as anything. As commerce flourished, unusual or especially fine varieties of vegetables were brought in, and this included much produce that was donated to the imperial court and the great temples and shrines that graced the city.
Fresh seafood was difficult to obtain in this inland capital far removed from the sea, and most fish that was available was either salted or dried. In devising tasty preparations of these preserved seafood products, attention focused on vegetables as companion ingredients in cooking. This gave rise to today's continuing favorites: bodara to ebiimo (dried cod fillets with taro potatoes), migaki nishin to yamashina nasu (dried herring and eggplant), and wakame to takenoko (seaweed with bamboo shoots). And of course the vegetables were delicious on their own, eaten in various preparations.
These vegetables also flourished in Kyoto's soil and climate. The upper reaches of the Kamo, Takano and Katsura rivers supplied the soil with nutrients and maintained the water table, and the ample rainfall, mild temperatures and moderate humidity made it easy to grow tender greens.
The topography of the area, too, surrounded on three sides by mountains, meant that the winters were cold enough to further heighten the flavor of winter vegetables. Farmers used organic fertilizer produced from natural wastes in urban areas to nourish crops in nearby fields. Their innovative efforts and passed-down traditions, as well as the local demand for high-quality produce, have ensured that Kyoto vegetables maintain their delicious taste and distinctive quality.
Special Roles and Markets
Kyoto vegetables are associated with Kyoto - style dishes that are considered the height of Japanese cuisine, especially kaiseki ryori (the elegant meals accompanying the more formal tea ceremonies) and the vegetarian diet of the Buddhist temples. The chefs of five-star traditional-style restaurants in Tokyo make a point of purchasing their vegetables directly from faraway Kyoto. There are also many varieties of Kyoto-style pickled vegetables (kyo-tsukemono) in which Kyoto produce is indispensable; for example, senmai-zuke made of the large round shogoin kabu, shiba-zuke with kamo nasu, and suguki-zuke from the sugukina turnip. But, of course, they are also the stuff of ordinary daily fare, known in Kyoto by the age-old term "obanzai."
Even today, Kyoto is known for its distinctive furiuri tradition in which farmers bring their produce to market directly to consumers in the city. They make regular rounds of neighborhoods and steady customers with a hand-drawn cart or light truck loaded to the gills with fresh vegetables taken from the fields in the early morning.
Kyoto cuisine, Kyoto-style pickles and obanzai are sustained by the fact that so many people still treasure, protect and cultivate these special vegetables because they fulfill consumers' demands for the highest quality produce with which to create a meal with the very best flavor and fragrance.
Kyoto vegetables have long been prized because they have preserved their original character since ancient times, and now they are winning attention from a completely different angle because of their newly discovered health benefits. With a well - established reputation as a source of necessary nutrients (vitamins C and B1, as well as fiber), now it has been found that they also possess qualities that help protect the body against cancer. Kamo nasu and katsura uri, for example, are believed to have 2 to 12 times the cancer-fighting effects of the ordinary senryo nasu and white uri varieties sold generally. Shikagatani pumpkin and fushimi green peppers have also been found to be effective.
And thus, to the virtues of the traditional vegetables of Kyoto cultivated faithfully from ancient times, we can now add new merits. Kyoto vegetables are both old and new.
Daizo Tanaka, manager of the vegetable crops division, Kyoto Prefectural Agricultural Research Institute, specializes in developing improved cultivation technologies with regard to Kyoto vegetables. He is author of Traditional Vegetables in Kyoto.