By Yoko Tanimoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKANAZAWA — Renkon is the underground stem of the lotus plant. In Ishikawa Prefecture, a variety cultivated as a traditional vegetable is called Kaga renkon and has such a texture that it becomes as sticky as nagaimo yam when grated. I visited the city of Kanazawa early last month, where full-fledged harvesting of the rhizome had started.
On the day of my visit, farmer Chihiro Yoshimoto was in the mud and water up to his hips harvesting Kaga renkon in a field on reclaimed land in Kahokugata lagoon on the outskirts of Kanazawa.
Yoshimoto’s hands pushed aside lotus leaves and stalks, which look like big umbrellas, and dug up the rhizome by using a water pressure hose to get rid of the mud on the surface of the water.
“There is no way but to feel around for the [renkon] because they lie beneath the mud,” said the 33-year-old farmer, who has cultivated the vegetable for 12 years. “I rely on my experience and intuition.”
Yoshimoto continued to work in heavy rain from 5 a.m. to around noon that day, saying about 200 kilograms a day is usually harvested.
The renkon that were dug up had dynamic shapes, with big rhizomes measuring about 1 meter long with three to six tubers. The color of the skin was reddish-brown because it had been exposed to iron in the earth.
The crop is transported to a vegetable collection and shipment center, where hard parts between tubers are cut off before the crops are ranked into such grades as “preeminent” and “excellent” according to their size and other features. They are packed in 5-kilogram cases before being shipped to the market on the day of harvesting.
In Kanazawa, renkon are said to have grown locally since the Edo period (1603-1867). Kaga renkon is a representative of Kaga vegetables, which are certified by a group established by the city, producers and others for the purpose of preserving traditional vegetables, with Kaga coming from the name of the domain that ruled what is now Ishikawa Prefecture and neighboring regions.
Currently grown in the city is a variety named Shina-Shirobana. This renkon variety is also grown in other prefectures, but the crops grown in the clayish soil particular to the city are thicker and have a sticky texture.
According to Yoshiaki Minami, 62, an official of the renkon section at the JA Kanazawa agricultural cooperative, some farming households still employ a traditional method of harvesting Kaga renkon, in which the vegetable is dug up with hoes after water is drained from the fields. In this approach, crops are shipped without removing the mud.
Farmers plow the ground in spring and place young renkon around April. The harvesting season runs from August to May, with this time of the year through the year-end reaching a peak for shipping.
During winter, nets are put up over the fields to protect against wild ducks, and crops are harvested by cracking through ice that has formed. “It’s a real test of physical strength,” Yoshimoto said. “However, I enjoy growing big renkon and hearing that they are delicious.”
According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s surveys of family income and expenditure, Kanazawa topped prefectural capitals and ordinance-designated major cities in terms of average spending on renkon per household for 2015 to 2017. The city has a traditional dish called hasu-mushi, in which grated renkon is steamed and then topped with a starchy sauce. This is a popular dish at local restaurants.
The renkon from Yoshimoto’s field were cooked at his home to make some standard dishes. For one recipe, the vegetable was cut thickly in discs and broiled with soy sauce, sugar and black vinegar. With the addition of shichimi-togarashi seven-flavor pepper, this teriyaki-style dish makes a good snack when drinking. “Try different textures of renkon by cutting it in discs or vertically,” he said.
Another dish was similar to okonomiyaki Japanese-style pancake, for which renkon was grated, with salt added, and made into flat round shapes to broil. I found the grated vegetable had a chewy texture. Miso soup that included grated renkon had a mild flavor and warmed me up after I became cold.
Kaga renkon can be ordered via Hogarakamura (http://hogarakamura.com/), an online shopping site run by the JA Kanazawa agricultural cooperative. The vegetable is priced at around ¥3,500 for a 3-kilogram package, plus shipping fees. The renkon can be kept fresh by wrapping it with wet newspaper and putting it in plastic bags before placing in the refrigerator.
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