By Nao Yako / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterAIZUTAJIMA, Fukushima — Purple asparagus varieties usually have softer stalks than those of their green and white counterparts — and they are tasty even when eaten raw.
In late May, I visited Minamiaizu, Fukushima Prefecture, a town known as a major production site of the purple cultivars.
Rows of plastic greenhouses line a basin surrounded on all four sides by mountains. Inside one of the greenhouses, deep purple asparagus were seen standing high.
Farmer Hisato Watanabe, 50, harvested the plants that were about 30 centimeters tall with a sickle.
He handed me one of the just-harvested asparagus stalks and said, “Try it,” as juices were dripping from the cross-section of the thick stalk.
Eating it, I experienced a nice crispy texture. The stalk was juicy and free of fibrous strings. A subtly sweet taste spread in my mouth.
According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, among asparagus varieties with various colors, purple ones get their color as they contain a higher amount of polyphenols compared to green and white ones. Purple asparagus are also grown in Hokkaido, Nagano Prefecture and some other places.
Farmers in Minamiaizu began cultivating green asparagus in 1971. Around 2000, they also began cultivating purple varieties to differentiate their produce from that of other growing areas.
Currently, the farmers grow mainly Purple Passion, a U.S. cultivar, and Harumurasaki F, a variety developed by the Fukushima prefectural government.
The town has large temperature changes between the daytime and nighttime, which enhances the vegetables’ color and sweetness. But the local farmers said that crop yields of purple asparagus are less stable than those of green varieties.
Asparagus belong to the lily family. From a single plant buried under the ground, asparagus stalks can be harvested for about 10 years. In the town, there are two harvest seasons — spring and summer.
From around April, after the winter snow melts away, farmers harvest young stalks in greenhouses. But they do not cut all of them.
From late June to August, the farmers have a second harvest, cutting the young stalks that shoot out from around the roots of the older stalks that have grown bigger.
The Japan Patent Office has a trademark registration system for local specialty products, aiming to enhance such goods’ trustworthiness and competitiveness. Last year, the Aizu-Yotsuba agricultural cooperative obtained trademark registration for the name Aizu Tajima Asupara for their produce.
Farmers in the town have also been developing a pink-hued variety named sakura (cherry) asparagus, since about three years ago.
Though pink and white asparagus can be harvested only in spring, local farmers aim to promote the town as a place to taste and compare four different-colored asparagus varieties — purple, green, white and cherry pink — to help boost local tourism.
Watanabe cultivates asparagus of all four colors in a total of 30 greenhouses.
“I’d like people to try eating purple asparagus raw,” he said. “For example, the asparagus can be thinly sliced for use in salads or sandwiches. I hope people enjoy the fresh taste and color of our asparagus.”
Purple asparagus turns green when boiled. This is because polyphenols, which produce the purple color, are vulnerable to heat.
For the most nutritional benefit, eating it raw is recommended. If it is necessary to heat it, add a bit of vinegar or lemon juice and boil it for a short time. Doing so helps retain the color.
Because purple asparagus is highly perishable, it is recommended to eat it as soon as possible after harvesting. To store in a refrigerator, wrap in newspaper and stand vertically.
Purple asparagus produced in Minamiaizu can be purchased at Machinoeki Minamiaizu Furusato Bussankan, a farmers’ market in the town (Tel: 0241-63-3055).
To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&d