By Kohei Aratani / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterHACHIJO, Tokyo — The harvesting of ashitaba leaves is fully under way on Hachijojima island, one of the remote islands that is administratively part of Tokyo.
Ashitaba plants grow remarkably well during this time of the year. I recently visited a production site where farmers were busy at work.
Ashitaba leaves have a distinctive bitter taste, and are rich in vitamins and minerals. Originally, ashitaba grew wild in warm climates along Japan’s Pacific Ocean shores. The Izu Islands are one of Japan’s largest producers of ashitaba leaves.
Ashitaba plants are so hardy that people say if you pick a leaf today, a new one will grow tomorrow. The strong regenerative power of the plant inspired its name — ashitaba literally means “tomorrow leaf.”
“Actually, new leaves grow in about five days,” said Taketsugi Isezaki, a 66-year-old farmer.
The leaves that aren’t used in processed food products are harvested before they grow too large and are eaten in dishes such as ohitashi, boiled leaves with soy sauce, and tempura.
The season for the plant begins around February and lasts until June.
Ashitaba leaves that are processed are kneaded into the dough for udon noodles and bread. They are also an ingredient in “aojiru” vegetable juice.
I visited a field where ashitaba plants were being harvested to be eaten unprocessed. Isezaki’s wife Masae, 68, moved through the plants, which were about one meter tall. She cut off young stalks one by one with a blade made especially for that purpose.
The couple’s ashitaba are spread out among several different fields. They go back to the same field every three days to harvest stalks newly shot up from the earth.
Yellow sap oozed out from the cross-section where the stalk was cut. The liquid is called chalcone, and is so sticky it’s hard to wash off your fingers.
Masae’s work clothes were stained with the yellow liquid as she harvested the stalks. She peeled back the outer layer of one she had just cut and let me eat it on the spot. It was slightly bitter and had a unique aroma, like citrus. It was a bit sweet and tasted good.
Then I visited a field with Taketsugi used for growing ashitaba plants to be processed. Every year, the volume of leaves for unprocessed use declines when it gets hotter, while those for processing begin to flourish.
The peak harvesting season begins when the plants have grown tall enough. The plants were 1.5 meters to 2 meters tall when I visited — so tall I could not make out Taketsugi among them.
He harvested some stalks while leaving two young ones untouched. About two weeks later, he would come back to the same field and harvest again while leaving two young ones alone.
The stalks’ speed of growth is stunning, but he said the plants don’t like the hot weather in mid-summer. As the leaves are lost or shriveled during the hottest parts of summer, ashitaba farmers usually harvest the leaves by the end of June.
In the past, Taketsugi tried to take steps so that ashitaba leaves could be harvested even in the dog days of summer.
He set up nets to weaken the sunlight and sprayed water with a sprinkler, but he said all his attempts were unsuccessful.
“Even if I artificially altered the environment, my attempts did not find success despite my many efforts,” he said. “Ashitaba is a really sensitive vegetable.”
Farmers work late every day to meet the demand for shipments of ashitaba.
Ashitaba leaves produced in the Izu Islands are shipped mainly to the Tokyo metropolitan area. Ashitaba leaves can also be bought at the Tokyo Islands Cafe inside the Takeshiba Passenger Ship Terminal in Minato Ward, Tokyo.
The cafe is an antenna shop of local products from the Izu Islands and the Ogasawara Islands. Unprocessed ashitaba leaves are sold there until around June.
Hachijojima locals usually use ashitaba leaves to make ohitashi. However, according to staff at local soba restaurant Senryo, tempura or stir-fry ashitaba dishes reduce the bitterness of the leafy vegetable, so even people unfamiliar with the taste can enjoy them.
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