When I order a meal in Japan, quite often my chosen dish is accompanied by some unidentified slop that makes me think… what was that? More often than not, it turns out to be a type of vegetable that is unfamiliar to my Western palate. So what are these strange vegetables – what do they look like and how do they taste?
The first few times this appeared on my plate I was pretty convinced that it shouldn’t be eaten at all, but how wrong I was. Usually accompanying sushi or sashimi, the perilla leaf is part of the mint family, although the flavour is entirely different. Usually used as a sort of bed, on which to lay wasabi, or to decorate piles of glistening sashimi, the leaf itself can indeed be eaten and is a tasty partner with a mouthful of sushi. The flavour is sort of like coriander and sort of like basil, but mostly it’s a taste unique to itself. A whole leaf can be a bit overpowering on its own – I like to dip it in soy sauce with a slice of sashimi for a powerful impact of flavour variety.
The name translates as ‘big root’ which is entirely appropriate – these things can be huge, and more often than not they are the cheapest vegetable at the market. They look like giant, anaemic carrots and don’t taste much better – basically they are just very mild in flavour and don’t taste like anything favourable. They’re not too bad if you put them in something where they can absorb all the flavour, like curry. Like all vaguely unappetizing things, daikons are quite good for you – they are very low in calories and are high in pretty much everything good for you. There is even such a thing as a ‘Daikon Diet’…
While most varieties of yam need to be cooked before you can eat them, the Japanese yam is an exception in that it can be eaten raw. Nagaimo is often added to noodles, or to the batter of okonomiyaki to act as a binding agent.
The renkon is a very traditional Japanese food – the flower and leaves are used for decoration, but the roots are edible. The texture of the root is crunchy, and it can be served in a number of ways. Karashi Renkon is a popular dish in Kumamoto, where the holes of the lotus roots are filled with a mixture of miso paste, mustard and honey. The whole root is coated in it too, and then it is fried in slices or whole.
Bamboo shoots are eaten all over Asia, and are prepared in a variety of ways. The taste can be bitter if they are not cooked long enough, and in Asian dishes bamboo shoots are often not that appetizing – so of course, they are good for you and have many health benefits.
This is one of the worst things I have eaten in my life. The bitter melon succeeds in not only tasting horrific, but being so bitter and disgusting that it ruins all other tastes on your tongue for the rest of the meal. It looks like a wart covered cucumber (so I have not-so-affectionately nicknamed it the wart-cumber) and the taste is, as I have mentioned, repulsive. There are apparently ways in which to cook it to make it less bitter, but I remain unconvinced. Seeing as it tastes so bad, it seems that this vegetable should be good for you, but in fact the evidence suggests otherwise. Reported side effects occurring from eating bitter gourd include chest pain, urinary incontinence and diarrhoea. Aside from that, it’s not recommended that bitter gourd be eaten by pregnant women – now there’s a vegetable you want to avoid!
When cooked briefly, and whole, the result is very different from cooking sliced okra – when sliced, the vegetable will become slimy and gooey. They are healthy but, again, not very tasty.
So there is your short introduction to some unusual Japanese vegetables – some are worth a try, but others are certainly not worth the bother.