In Japan, the word “negi” is a term which encompasses leeks, spring onions, scallions, and chives. This humble vegetable can be seen in many dishes as a condiment or garnish such as in salads, miso soup, soba, cold tofu (hiyayakko), stir-fried dishes, nabe udon, and ramen. However, do you know what type of negi you are eating and their unique features? Do you know what type of negi to buy at your local Japanese supermarket for the dish you are making? Read on to learn more about the Japanese negi and how they add texture and flavor to your favorite dishes!
In Japan, although there are many types of negi, they can be broadly classified into two main categories. Generally, Eastern Japan which includes the Kanto and Tohoku areas and Hokkaido tend to use the white (shiro) negi which has a crunchy texture and a longer white portion. On the other hand, in Western Japan including the Kansai, Kyushu and Shikoku areas and Okinawa, the green (ao) negi which is usually cut into small rings and has a longer green portion, is more common. With the advancement of agricultural technology and extensive distribution networks, both the shiro and ao negi can also be found outside the regions where they are usually grown in.
The shiro negi is grown using the ridging or earthing up method where the soil is piled up around the base of the plant. This allows the white portion near to the roots to grow longer and it doesn’t turn green since it is not exposed to the sun. On the other hand, the ao negi does not utilize this method, thus its green portion is allowed to grow longer than the white part.
The aroma and pungent taste of the negi are due to the allyl sulfide in the white portion. As such, the shiro negi contains a lot of this substance and has the effects of boosting the secretion of digestive juices, increasing your appetite and body temperature. As for the ao negi, the green portion contains a lot of calcium and vitamins. Due to this difference, the shiro negi is said to have medicinal values, while the ao negi is valued for its nutritional values.
In terms of cooking methods, the shiro negi will have a unique sweetness when it is heated so it is commonly used in stewed dishes such as sukiyaki and yakitori. The ao negi has a nice fragrance, thus is used in stir-fried dishes or as condiments such as in miso soup.
According to the 2014 negi production ranking released by The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the top three prefectures producing the most negi are Chiba, Saitama, and Ibaraki which collectively contribute about 36% of the national output. As Tokyo is the biggest consumer of negi, it is probably no coincidence that the top negi producers are all near the capital and in the Kanto region. Although in recent years, the consumption of negi has been on a downward trend due to a decreasing population. The import of cheaper negi from China has also posed a threat to domestically produced negi so if you are buying negi from a grocery store or supermarket, you may wish to pay attention to the label and check the place of produce.
If you are a negi lover like me, here are three negi specialty restaurants which you should visit while in Japan:
1. Negicchin Negi Negi
This restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo features negi in all their dishes from side snacks to desserts. Most people would have the impression that the negi can only play a supporting role in a dish, but Negi Negi debunks this notion and shows you the unlimited potential of this humble vegetable. To get to Negi Negi, you can walk after alighting from the Hatsudai Station or Hatagaya Station on the Keio New Line, or take Keio Bus No. 45 from Shinjuku or Nakano Station. Take note though that this restaurant is only open during dinner hours from 5 pm to midnight, and is closed on Tuesdays. If you look at the menu on their website, you may be surprised to find unique dishes and drinks such as the negi tequila, negi shochu, negi miso onigiri, and the negi cheesecake!
2. Negiya Heikichi
This restaurant chain has 7 branches with its main store located in Sendai, Miyagi, 2 shops in Kyoto City, and the rest in Tokyo’s Meguro, Shibuya, Minato, and Setagaya. As such, opening hours and rest days differ so please check the website in advance before making reservations or visiting the branch of your choice. The nostalgic decor of Negiya Heikichi is much talked about in online reviews so you will be able to have a different dining experience in each restaurant. For instance, the branch at Shibuya is built to look like a nagaya – buildings with shingled roofs and clapboards in the Edo period. In terms of the menu choices, each branch has its unique selling point such as the ox tongue shabu-shabu in the Sendai main shop, or the grilled vegetables and nabe dishes in the Kyoto stores. The common point though is that they all serve dishes which feature the negi as the leading star rather than just a supporting character.
3. Jidaiya Shun
This restaurant in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo features the Kujou negi from Kyoto which is a type of ao negi and is delivered from Kyoto every day. What’s unique about this place that was founded in 2003 is that it is a soba restaurant during lunch hours, but becomes a teppanyaki restaurant at night. On its lunch menu, there are four types of soba along with donburi and onigiri for you to choose from. Most importantly, there is a free flow of Kujou negi for the customers. On the other hand, the dinner menu features three types of okonomiyaki filled with Kujou negi along with yakisoba and other side dishes. If you plan to visit during dinner, be sure to make a reservation since they do not accept walk-ins given that there are only 8 counter seats in the restaurant. Be sure to check out the restaurant’s Facebook page if you would like to view their promotions and new items on the menu.
Now that you’ve picked up so much knowledge about the negi and how versatile it can be, do give this healthy vegetable a try and savor its unique flavors!