The Yomiuri ShimbunSENDAI — There are a variety of main ingredients for nabe hot pot dishes — pork, chicken and seafood, to name a few. But in Miyagi Prefecture and its vicinity, seri, a type of Japanese parsley, has been gaining popularity.
Seri is widely known as one of the seven kinds of spring herbs in Japan. Belonging to the Japanese parsley family, this perennial grows naturally in paddies and watery environments across the nation.
The prefecture boasts the highest shipping volume of seri, accounting for one-third of the domestic shipment of 1,266 tons in 2014.
In the prefecture, the leafy vegetable with a distinctive aroma has long been used as one of the essential ingredients in Sendai’s zoni mochi soup.
But cooking and eating a whole bunch of seri, roots and all, in a hot pot dish has become common only in the past dozen years or so.
Japanese restaurant Inaho in Aoba Ward, Sendai, is said to have been one of the first eateries to serve seri hot pot. It began serving seri shabu around 2004. The soup for seri shabu is prepared by adding soy sauce and mirin to dashi stock made from kelp and bonito flakes. Seri roots are blanched in the soup for about 10 seconds, while the stems and leaves are blanched for a few seconds just before eating them. Cooked this way, the taste of seri itself can be fully savored.
When the restaurant started serving the dish, it initially offered it only with stems and leaves. But the restaurant decided to serve the roots as well upon a request from a customer from Akita Prefecture, where people also consume the roots in the local kiritanpo hot pot dish.
Kazuyoshi Ito, 53, the second-generation owner of the restaurant, said the vegetable’s roots and leaves have different flavors depending on the time of year.
“During winter, the vegetable contains rich savory flavor in the roots, while the aroma of the leaves gets stronger as spring nears,” Ito said. “Including the autumn period, when the vegetable becomes available, I want our customers to enjoy the differences in taste three times a year.”
Farming in Natori
Seri farmers are supporting the dietary culture featuring the vegetable. There are many wet fields unsuitable for growing rice in the Kamiyoden and Shimoyoden districts of Natori in Miyagi Prefecture. As a result, seri has been widely cultivated in the districts for about 400 years. In 2014, nearly 70 percent of the volume of seri shipped from the prefecture was produced in Natori.
This winter brought another harvest of seri to the verdant paddy of Takahiro Miura. The 37-year-old farmer was busy picking the vegetable. Despite the cold weather, Miura knelt down in the 40- to 50-centimeter-deep muddy water. Pushing aside the moss on the surface, he stretched his arms into the water and pulled out some seri.
“I used to ship the vegetable after cutting off the roots. But after seri hot pot became widespread, I’ve often been asked to ship whole bunches,” he said with a smile.
Miura has produced seri organically for more than a decade. Ito said his restaurant serves seri grown by Miura.
There are no standardized recipes or rules for seri hot pots. The vegetable can also be enjoyed simply as one of the ingredients. As a result, each restaurant offers hot pot in its original style, with several claiming theirs is “the first of its kind.”
The hot pot is enjoying a boom in popularity because of the wide variety of eating styles and recipes that have developed. On the other hand, branding it under unified recipes and rules raises some questions.
Miura believes seri hot pot is a kind of gastronomy created through the chemistry of producers, eateries and consumers.
“To prevent the popularity ending up merely as a fad, I want to keep producing tasty seri,” said Miura.
Seri on pizza
Fresh seri grown locally can be featured not only in hot pot dishes. Pizzeria Padrino del Shozan, an Italian restaurant in Aoba Ward, Sendai, last year began offering a pizza with fresh seri leaves on top.
It serves authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas and is the prefecture’s sole restaurant certified by Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, or the True Neapolitan Pizza Association, based in Naples, Italy.
Hoping to invent a new fusion cuisine from the traditional dishes of Naples and Miyagi Prefecture, the restaurant’s master chef, Toru Mitsuhashi, 31, created the seri pizza. He recalled the day he tasted the vegetable in a paddy in Natori, and said he immediately knew it would make a great pizza topping.
According to Mitsuhashi, chefs often use bitter rocket leaves to spice up the taste of pizza. In addition to bitterness, seri also has sweetness and a distinctive cool taste, and it goes well with cheese and meat fat, giving dishes a more complex flavor.
At the pizzeria, chefs cook the seri roots first before placing them on the pizza dough and baking the pizza in a stone oven. The stems and leaves are added later.
The restaurant’s pizza is a masterpiece that highlights the expanding potential of seri.
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