By Miwa Uehara / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterOne of the agricultural products unique to Okinawa Prefecture is shima rakkyo, or island shallots. Lightly pickled shallots can be found at restaurants and elsewhere, but I wanted to know how they tasted freshly picked, so I took a trip to Iejima island, which had begun its harvest.
Iejima island (Ie village) lies northwest of Okinawa Island, and cultivates 60 percent of the island shallots in the prefecture. Island shallots are longer, thinner and smaller than ordinary shallots, and are distinguished by their aroma and refreshingly spicy flavor.
I visited fields where the vegetables are cultivated and was greeted by swathes of deep-green leaves that looked like green onions swaying in the wind, filling the air with a faint scent of grass. The shallots are planted from September to November and harvested at the beginning of the following year at the earliest. By February, the harvest is well under way, before peaking in March and concluding around April.
Kota Gima, 29, has already started harvesting his crop. He owns about 6,000 square meters of fields and shipped three tons of island shallots last year.
“As shallot bulbs can be planted deep in the soil on Iejima, the stem buried in the ground becomes longer. That means more of the stem can be eaten,” said Gima. “High-quality shallots, which are white and soft, grow here.”
The soil in this region allows for these conditions. The clay-like, red-brown soil infused with Ryukyu limestone is well-drained and rich in minerals, according to Gima.
Weeding and managing water content are important in shallot cultivation. There is little rain in autumn, when the shallots grow in size, so special care is necessary. Harvesting is done manually. The shallots are hand-plucked when the soil is wet, but extracted by shovel when the soil is dry.
Mud-covered shallots appeared as Gima shoveled the soil. He removed the mud and roots before peeling the shallot’s thin skin, revealing a porcelain-white stem.
“Would you like to try one raw?” asked Gima. I bit into the flesh and a sweet flavor enveloped my taste buds, before the refreshing spiciness kicked in. Gima introduced a few recipes to me that feature island shallots, including tempura, chanpuru (an Okinawan stir-fried dish that contains tofu, meat and other ingredients) and a stir-fry using salty-sweet aburamiso, an Okinawan specialty of miso stir-fried with pork fat.
Island shallot tempura draws out the shallot’s sweetness, while the chanpuru and stir-fry have soft, flaky textures. According to Gima, namul seasoned vegetables can also be made using the leaves of island shallots, and the finely chopped stem goes well with stir-fried rice.
Toshikazu Chinen, an official for the JA Okinawa Ie branch, said, “Island shallots have been grown on the island for many years, and now we’re turning them into a brand.”
They’re not mass-produced, so it’s difficult to freshly harvest shallots outside Okinawa Prefecture. “I hope more people come to know and eat island shallots,” Gima said.
Efforts to brand and promote island shallots are under way. In 2007, the Okinawa prefectural government designated Iejima as an island shallot production base and has provided support for cultivation areas. In addition, Ie village declared itself to be the “home of island shallots” in March 2013, and designated March 6 as “Island Shallot Day.”
Fresh island shallots can be purchased at Washita stores, which sell Okinawan products at outlets in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Sapporo and other cities.
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