By Yoko Tanimoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterFUJIMI, Nagano — Rhubarb is a vegetable with either red stems or green stems native to Siberia and widely consumed in Europe. Often made into jams or sweets, the plant is becoming popular in Japan as well.
In early July, I visited Fujimi, Nagano Prefecture, a production area for red rhubarb.
A species in the Polygonaceae family, rhubarb looks a bit like fuki Japanese butterbur, but features a distinctive tartness. The plant softens quickly when heated and can be used, for example, as a sauce for meat dishes.
Nagano Prefecture and Hokkaido are the major production areas for the vegetable in Japan as it grows well in cool climates. Red rhubarb in particular is said to be cultivated only in highlands. Fujimi has been cultivating the plant in the hopes that it can be used to help revitalize the town.
Hiroto Kawai’s farm is located at an altitude of 1,000 meters, with views of Yatsugatake and other nearby mountains. Rhubarb plants spread their big green leaves under the sun and their red-tinted stalks can be glimpsed beneath the foliage.
Kawai grabbed the end of a stalk, wiggling it to pull up the plant, which made popping sounds as it came up. Dozens of edible stalks can jut out from the roots of a single plant.
The farmer harvests the stalks in the early morning, washes them and arranges them according to length before shipping them in plastic bags. They arrive in stores the next morning.
“Rhubarb is relatively easy to grow as it’s almost entirely free from pests, which means we don’t need to use pesticides,” said Kawai, 63, who is also the head of the town’s rhubarb production association. “What’s attractive about this vegetable is that we can cultivate it even as we grow old.”
The rhubarb organization was formed in 2006 and today about 100 people — many of whom are in their 60s to 80s — are cultivating red rhubarb by taking advantage of their farmland that was lying idle. Some farmers switched from flower cultivation while others started growing rhubarb after they reached their mandatory retirement age at work. Rhubarb cultivation seems to help them maintain good health and give them motivation.
Rhubarb is a perennial plant, meaning each plant produces stalks multiple times year after year. The vegetable is harvested and shipped between June and early November. The stalks harvested in early summer are lush with a strong tartness, while those picked in autumn are milder and redder.
Due to unstable weather and high temperatures this year, the stalks are relatively thin and the harvest has arrived later than usual, Kawai said. As the hot season can cause a plague of pests, “we have to get rid of any weeds and pick some of the stalks to let the wind blow through the base of the vegetable as much as possible,” he added.
Rhubarb is now in the spotlight as a healthy food because it is rich in dietary fiber and includes potassium and anthocyanins.
“I feel great having my vegetables hit the shelves at department stores,” Kawai said.
Kayo Higuchi, 66, vice head of the production association, said, “It gives me a boost to know there are people waiting for our harvested products to arrive every year.”
I took a bite of freshly picked rhubarb; it had a stringy texture and left a lemon-like tartness and bitterness in my mouth. Coming back home, I tried making jam. It softened as soon as it was heated, and in just 15 minutes I had sour red jam.
Red rhubarb sells for about ¥1,000 per 500 grams at department stores in the Tokyo metropolitan area. In addition to being turned into jam or syrup, the vegetable can be pickled in salt as a good filling for onigiri rice balls or preserved in salt and sugar to be eaten as is.
Visit www.fujimi-aka-rhubarb.jp to find more recipes.
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