It feels like winter has finally arrived. This morning, the drive to work was slowed by dense, wet snow and howling winds. Every few minutes, the early morning grey turned violet with a sudden, bright flash of lightning. Ah, thunder snow. How I missed you.
I’m on an aquatic vegetable kick recently. Renkon is so last week, though. Today, I’m moving on to something a little less common. Do you recognize these?
These cute little vegetables are known in Japanese as kuwai (くわい). They look a little like tulip or lily bulbs, but they’re actually tubers from the arrowhead plant (genus sagittaria, in case you were curious.) Beneath their brown, fibrous covering, their skin is either white or pale blue-purple in color. As a food, they are high in starch and have a consistency very similar to a potato, though with a particular aroma and sweet flavor. Because they are harvested in winter and their budding appearance is seen as a fortuitous metaphor for new endeavors, they are sometimes included in osechi (New Year’s) cuisine.
When I first spotted them in December at my local grocery store, I assumed, as I often do, that this produce anomaly was distinctly Asian. I was wrong, as I often am. Species of arrowroot are native to many continents and many climates, including (surprise!) my own home country, where they go by names such as Duck Potato, Indian Potato and Wapato. Though largely unknown in modern households – except, perhaps, as an aquarium plant – the starchy tubers produced by the arrowhead were an important food source for many native tribes. Lewis and Clark encountered a cousin of the kuwai near the Willamette River, according to an informative pamphlet from the USDA, and, “considered it equal to the potato, and valuable for trade.”
Ishikawa is one of the few places in Japan that produces kuwai commercially. In fact, they are one of 15 kaga yasai (加賀野菜、Kaga vegetables), the name brand heirloom vegetables produced here in Ishikawa. The season is officially over now, but they can still be found in Omicho Market if you’d like to give them a go.
How do you prepare kuwai? The simple answer is, any method you’d use for a potato – boiled, baked or fried – is probably okay for a kuwai, too. One major difference is that kuwai can be pretty bitter. Most of the bitterness, however, is concentrated in the skin, so it’s advisable to peel them. The stems, once peeled, are also okay to eat, and they look quite nice when left on.
I tested two different cooking methods.
Method 1: Fried
Remove the stems and boil in salt water until slightly soft. Roll in katakuriko (片栗粉、a cooking starch – corn starch would work fine, too) before frying them in hot oil. Sprinkle with salt and/or aonori (seaweed powder).
Method 2: Boiled
In a medium saucepan, combine 500 ml of dashi broth with 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 3 tablespoons of mirin and 2 tablespoons of sake. Bring to a boil. Add peeled kuwai and simmer until soft enough to be stabbed with a fork. Serve hot or cold.
I admit I was a little worried by the odd, almost astringent smell the kuwai gave off while being boiled. I didn’t have any idea what to expect when I bit into the first one. I was expecting bitter, but I was surprised. Both methods of preparation yielded a texture that was, indeed, very similar to a potato or a well-cooked chestnut – similarly starchy, but with a subtle and inexplicable sweetness, and a lovely, almost floral flavor. While peeling them was a bit tedious, the unique flavor of kuwai was worth the work. If I can find any more of them, I would love try some more adventurous recipes.
Personal Goal for 2012: Eat ALL the Kaga Yasai.