By Yukako Oishi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKAMINOKAWA, Tochigi — Tochigi Prefecture boasts Japan’s second highest production volume of nira garlic chives. The prefecture has developed a new variety and is actively encouraging local farmers to cultivate it.
Nira’s distinctive smell filled the interior of a greenhouse in Kiminokawa in the prefecture, where long, thin, vividly green leaves were shooting up all around.
Katsuhiro Tsunoda cultivates the vegetable in about 60 greenhouses over a total area of 1.5 hectares.
Nira belongs to the lily family. After its leaves are cut, they shoot up from the bulbs all over again, meaning they can be harvested repeatedly. Farmers harvest them when they have grown to more than 45 centimeters length after 35 to 40 days.
In Tsunoda’s greenhouses, moisture oozes from the stems of freshly cut nira.
In addition to length, Tsunoda considers the depth of the leaves’ greenness when deciding when to harvest. Crop seasons come roughly twice: first in winter to spring and then in summer.
Each of Tsunoda’s greenhouses has an inner and outer roof. Sprinklers between the two rain down water pumped up from underground. When the temperature inside the greenhouses drops to 7 C or below at night, the water is sprinkled over the inner roofs to maintain an appropriate temperature inside the greenhouses for nira to grow.
Meanwhile, there is also a way to hibernate bulbs by not warming up the interior of the greenhouses in cold seasons. This method will delay nira’s growing period for about a month so they are harvested around March.
“After resting for a long time, the bulbs store a good amount of nutrients, making the nira taste better,” Tsunoda said. The leaves grow soft in this way and taste especially good, he added.
Tochigi Prefecture has produced nira for years. The yield amount in 2015 was 10,700 tons, the second-largest volume nationwide after Kochi Prefecture. The Tochigi prefectural government’s agricultural experiment facility developed a new variety called Yumemidori (Dream green).
These plants grow tall with thicker and wider leaves. Their quality is stable enough that producers are able to increase harvests.
The leaves of other varieties become thinner from being harvested around three times a year, but those of the Yumemidori type sustain around five harvests from a single bulb.
Some bulbs of the Yumemidori variety that Tsunoda produces will extend to a ninth harvest, but the stalks of their leaves remain thick and firm.
The prefectural government is distributing seeds of the new variety to encourage farmers to grow it, hoping it will be the trump card in allowing the prefecture to gain the No. 1 position in nira production in Japan.
Freshly harvested nira of the Yumemidori variety has a firm texture when lightly boiled. It has some sweetness amid its strong flavor. I felt like I could easily consume a large portion.
Nira is used for a variety of dishes including gyoza dumplings, liver stir-fry and nabe hot pot dishes. Tsunoda recommends eating it as tempura.
Cut the nira stalks into 3 to 4 centimeter lengths and mix with batter before deep-frying in the kakiage mixed tempura style. Season with a pinch of salt before eating. The crispy batter goes well with the texture of the nira.
Boiling nira and seasoning with soy sauce dressing is a good way to enjoy the vegetable’s savory flavor and also allows you to eat large portions.
He recommends choosing lush, deep-green leaves when purchasing. Nira is rich in carotene, vitamin E and other nutrients. Tsunoda also said, “I don’t catch colds because I always eat nira.”
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