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Japan’s earliest white onions taste juicy, sweet

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Sliced onion salad with shaved dried bonito and a little soy sauce, front, and a whole onion simmered in consomme soup

By Miwa Uehara / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterWhite onions are known for their juicy sweetness, and are a local specialty of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Harvesting and shipping began early in January, and I visited its producing area, known for shipping the country’s first onions of the season.

Facing the Enshunada sea in the Pacific Ocean, Hamamatsu has a warm climate and long sunshine hours throughout the year. Abundant sunlight facilitates photosynthesis, which makes onions sweeter. With well-drained sandy soil, common yellow and red onions and other crops are widely produced in the city, in addition to white onions, which are rarely produced in Japan outside Hamamatsu.

In the Shinohara district of southern Hamamatsu, crop fields spread alongside residential buildings. White onion producer Mitsuyuki Suzuki, 72, showed his field covered by long, thin green leaves and filled with a smell unique to onions.

“In November and December last year, we had adequate rain and warm temperatures, so the white onions have grown quickly. And it’s been warm since the beginning of the year, so they grew further in size,” Suzuki said with a smile.

Since white onions are soft and susceptible to damage, they are harvested by hand. As he grabbed the leaves and pulled them out, a round, shiny onion appeared. White onions are a little flat compared to yellow onions, and almost the size of an adult man’s fist. Harvesting lasts for about two months, with January being the busiest season, according to Suzuki.

When the leaves stop growing, onions become more pungent. White onions are less pungent, and they are harvested before the leaves stop growing. As a result, you can enjoy their more subtle flavor.

A good time for harvesting is when the onion grows to a diameter of about eight to 10 centimeters.

White onions are susceptible to temperature fluctuations, changes in moisture levels and diseases. Since their seeds are not available commercially, each farmer must grow and harvest the seeds on their own. It takes three years from the cultivation of the seeds to the harvesting of white onions, Suzuki said.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Mitsuyuki Suzuki carefully harvests onions in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

First, white onion producers need to select onions to harvest seeds. Then they grow them to bloom in the following spring and harvest the seeds. They sow the seeds in autumn and finally harvest white onions in January the next year. This cultivation method has taken root in Hamamatsu, but apparently because it requires a lot of labor and time, there are very few white onion producers in other places.

Suzuki recommends eating them while they are still fresh. “Thinly sliced raw onions are the most delicious, and it’s also good to simmer them in consomme soup or make deep-fried kakiage,” Suzuki said.

Using freshly harvested white onions, I made salad and simmered the onions in soup. Honestly speaking, onions are not my favorite food, but the white onions had no pungent or bitter flavor even though they weren’t soaked in water, so I could eat a lot.

A whole onion simmered in soup was so sweet that I couldn’t believe it was a vegetable, and I fully enjoyed its thick texture.

Memo

White onions are believed to have arrived in Hamamatsu from the Chita Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture from the late Meiji era (1868-1912) to the early Taisho era (1912-1926).

In the Shinohara district, local farmers continued varietal improvements while taking advantage of the region’s climate and soil, and produced a type that can be shipped from the beginning of the year.

At present, white onions are sold mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area as “Salad Onions.”

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