By Yoko Tanimoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterSAGA — White asparagus perhaps calls to mind imported asparagus in a can, but recently, fresh white asparagus grown in Japan is gaining popularity. Thick with a pronounced sweetness, white asparagus is often on menus as a springtime delicacy.
Saga Prefecture boasts the second-largest production volume of asparagus in Japan after Hokkaido. In terms of planting area, 90 percent is allocated to the cultivation of green asparagus and 10 percent to white. Asparagus don’t turn green if they are not exposed to light. Rising demand for white asparagus at restaurants and supermarkets in the Tokyo metropolitan area, however, has boosted production volume.
In early March in the plastic greenhouses of Toshimasa Yamaryo’s asparagus farm in Saga, the ridges where the asparagus were growing were covered by tunnel-like contraptions made of silver-colored sheets to block out the light. Lifting a sheet, one encounters a humid compartment where weedy white stalks were sprouting from the ground.
Yamaryo, 62, cultivates white asparagus in six greenhouses and green ones in two others. The same variety, called Welcome, is planted to cultivate green and white asparagus. White ones grow slower than green ones, so become thicker and sweeter, Yamaryo said. They are shipped when they grow to about 27 centimeters long.
White asparagus require greater care than green ones. As they turn greenish with exposure to sunlight or fluorescent light, harvesting is done at night or in the early morning.
Asparagus is a perennial and can be harvested over many years from a single stock. Green ones can be harvested twice, in spring and summer, while white ones are picked only in spring.
White asparagus harvests are usually completed just after the Golden Week holiday period in May. The covers are removed to expose unharvested asparagus to sunlight for photosynthesis. The stocks that remain are kept in chilly conditions between autumn and winter, and then covered with the silver sheets to keep them warm from January. Young stalks start to sprout around February.
According to Yamaryo, the white asparagus this year appear to be growing slower than usual, meaning the harvest might be delayed.
“I’m growing them under the sheets, so that means less worry about pests,” he said. “The asparagus are pesticide-free and can be eaten without worry.”
In Saga, about 30 farming households grow asparagus. The vegetables are brought to a sorting facility in the city after being harvested and sorted by size to be shipped. About 70 percent of them are shipped by air to the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Extra-thick stalks of 3 centimeters in diameter are so rarely harvested that they are named Shiroi Hoseki (white jewel) and packaged for use in gift-giving.
I boiled and served freshly harvested Shiroi Hoseki. Soft with an elegant sweetness and slight bitterness, it was also quite filling. The taste brought back memories of white asparagus I ate in a Paris bistro.
Before boiling asparagus, peel the bottom 3-5 centimeters of the stalks, then put in boiling water for 5-10 minutes. Serving with mayonnaise is common, but try asparagus wrapped with raw ham or place in consomme.
Yamaryo said white asparagus works in a variety of dishes, including miso soup, curry, sushi rolls and kakiage mixed tempura.
White asparagus from Saga Prefecture can also be purchased through JA Group’s online shop JA Town (http://www.ja-town.com/).
When keeping uncooked asparagus in the refrigerator, wrap them with damp newspapers and stand them up to help them stay fresh longer.
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