Springtime in Tokyo

13 Apr

Apologies for the long hiatus, SOK readers! I was just waiting for an auspicious date like Friday the 13th to make my first post in a month. Last month took me back to Japan to spend some quality time with my now-98-year-old grandma, who still insists on doing much of the cooking when I visit. (She also shared an old Japanese saying that eating a new food extends your lifespan by 75 days, in which case, I’m living to be at least as old as her.)

This March was unusually cold for Tokyo, but springtime vegetables still made their debut. Most of these are semi-foraged woodland foods, tender shoots and buds that are celebrated after a long winter devoid of green things.

Fuki-no-tou (ふきのとう) is translated in English as butterbur scape. (Seriously, what is it with Asian foods that sound terrible when translated to English?) The stalks of the mature plant are also eaten, but it’s the tender buds that are most prized, as they only appear for a month or so. One of my mom’s friends stopped by with three shoots that had poked up in her garden that morning; we had them minced on miso soup, as she recommended. The minced fuki-no-tou is very aromatic, and reminded me a bit of ginger flowers; it’s hard to describe, but there’s a sort of “green bud” flavor that they have in common. Fuki-no-tou is also often served as tempura, though I think I prefer it raw.

Udo (独活) is, according to my Googling, called “Japanese spikenard.” Like fuki-no-tou, it’s only available in early spring, so I never had it growing up, as I only visited Japan during the summer. It’s got a delicate flavor that’s best appreciated raw; we had it thinly sliced with a miso dressing. The taste is a bit like a subdued fennel; less crunchy, but with a bit of that anise tinge.

The last vegetable is not strictly a spring thing, but we did get it as a souvenir from my uncle’s trip. I don’t know the exact name, but it’s some sort of radish. A magic, color-changing radish: the addition of a little vinegar turns the homely vegetable to a brilliant fuchsia, brightening up any menu. Because I think we can all agree that we don’t have enough hot pink in our diets.

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