One man’s passion for purity
Akizuki, a picturesque mountainside village named for the autumnal moon, boasts a centuries-old history immersed in Japan’s feudal past. The key players are shogunates, samurai, and the citizens they ruled. Kyusuke Takaki’s own lineage as a kudzu maker originates deep in this town’s past. He is the 10th generation head of the family business and by way of introduction he recounted the tale of the family industry. In 1819, orders received from the Edo bafuku (Tokyo shogunate) spurred the regional feudal lord to stimulate local industry by inciting residents to make new and valuable local products. Takaki’s 7th great-grandfather, a former sake and candle maker, saw potential in the abundance of kudzu vines growing in the surrounding mountains. After rounds of experimentation, he presented his pure kudzu starch to the local lord who in turn offered it to the Edo shogunate. The kudzu was received favorably and today Takaki works hard to continue the legacy he inherited.
Kudzu is a uniquely Japanese ingredient. The highly refined arrowroot starch has many uses in traditional Japanese cuisine. It is a common ingredient in wagashi, Japan’s traditional confections and takes main stage in kuzu-mochi, a pillowy sweet eaten with brown sugar syrup and kinako powder. As a thickening agent, kudzu is prized for its texture giving sauces a silken smoothness and lustrous appeal without imparting any starchy flavors. Its healthful properties, to promote good digestion and raise the body temperature, are respected by concerned mothers and physicians alike who prescribe kudzu-yu (a sort of kudzu tea make with kudzu powder, hot water, and often ginger) to treat colds and other common ailments.
For generations Takaki’s ancestors gathered the roots of kudzu vines from the nearby mountainside and processed it by hand at their workshop in Akizuki. While the men went out to dig, the women labored through the bone chilling winters processing the roots in the cold calcium rich waters that flowed from high above. But post WWII, Japan entered a period of rapid development. In an effort to rebuild the country and economy, large swaths of its ancient forests were cut to make room for timber plantations. “It’s truly a misfortunate episode our history,” said Takaki. “They ignored any concerns regarding the ecosystem or environment.” Kuzu grew in those ancient forests and consequently vast reserves, including those in Akizuki, were wiped out.
As forests were rapidly cut, sourcing kudzu became harder and harder. Kudzu is made from the root of a vine that climbs high up to the canopy of old growth forests. Today the majority of remaining domestic reserves are found in Kagoshima, at the southern tip of Japan. We met Ikeda-san, an experienced kudzu root harvester, on a narrow road that winds through the forests. Ikeda is compact in frame, muscular, and like most of the men who still do this work, in his late 70s. Before embarking, he asked us to stand with him and honor the spirits of the forest. We pressed our hands together and bowed our heads in deference as he asked for safe passage. He clapped his hands in closing and threw on a makeshift backpack, a section of aluminum ladder with rubber hose for shoulder straps and wound with long rope. He set off at a brisk clip and we scrambled to keep up with him.
Ikeda read the forest like a map, turning and ascending at familiar points. He pointed out kudzu vines that hung like thick ropes strung from the branches of tall trees overhead. Ikeda could discern which held the potential of a large rootstock below. He spotted a good one, threw down his pack, and started digging. Kudzu roots are shallow growing, extending laterally in three to four branches. It takes decades for the roots to mature to harvestable age. In order to protect resources, only the larger branches are harvested, the smaller ones left to sustain the plant. Ten to twenty years later, when new roots have regenerated, the larger roots of the same vine can again be harvested. As Ikeda dug, the hole widened. He jumped in, his small stature engulfed by the hole. Despite the labor, he chatted the whole time, telling us about his life, about his children and their generation, about a waning workforce willing to do manual labor, about a youth culture with more interest in cities and suits than in digging edible vines from the mountainsides.
Pausing to examine the uncovered section of root before him, he followed its twisted path with his eye and threw his shovel into a fresh patch of dirt a meter away. With seven or eight strikes, he uncovered the root’s continuation. Carving away the dirt around it, he sawed it off at the joint and hauled it out of the hole. He strapped it to his pack and rested for a cigarette before we continued on.
Throughout the winter months Takaki travels to and from his workshops in Kagoshima and Akitsuki overseeing two stages of making kudzu. Like any good vegetable, the roots must be processed while fresh. In the Kagoshima workshop, they are washed and ground then soaked in water and pressed to extract the starches. The slurry is left to rest in wide tanks. The starches fall to the bottom while bitter residues rise to the top. Drained and dried, white clumpy starch is transported to Akizuki for further processing. Takaki still firmly believes that the quality of his product depends upon the cold, clear, alkaline water there. In a large workshop behind his storefront the starches brought from Kagoshima are mixed again in large tanks with clean water and rest for three days. Again the starches precipitate to the bottom while impurities rise to the top. The water is siphoned off and the pattern is repeated ten times. Over the course of these soakings the pure kudzu starch is bleached to a pristine white.
In the final stage, Takaki suspends the particles in water one last time and extracts the mid-weight particles considered the most uniform and best quality starches, a mere 7% in volume from the roots he began with. Strained and transferred into wooden molds, the kudzu is rapped vigorously with flat palms to settle the kudzu and release any trapped air that could cause fermentation. Takaki invited me to join in. I pinned my hair back, removed my rings, and washed my hands. I began patting the kudzu into place. It was the strangest sensation, a hard, cold sticky strike against the palm that released easily when slapping quickly. But when I rested my hand on the kudzu it yielded like sand washing away beneath your feet and my hand sunk in. The pressed kudzu was covered with cotton cloth and topped with kudzu powder to draw out the moisture. The workers retired to warm up with tea and returned an hour or so later. They removed the powder and cloth to reveal solid blocks of kudzu. Each was cut into square sections and placed on dry pallets that would be stacked on the second floor to dry.
Kudzu must dry in natural conditions for 6 to 12 months. Standing beside towering stacks of kudzu on pallets puzzled together just as his ancestors had always done, Takaki recalled a Sunday when he felt unusual rumblings. As what he thought was a large truck passing escalated into a strong earthquake, he panicked. He raced up to the second floor to find the stacks standing tall as usual, entirely unaffected. A few cracks in the building’s walls were the only evidence of the powerful quake. Takaki followed this account with effusive admiration for the wisdom of his ancestors who had so cleverly developed seemingly simple but well designed systems. These moments of clarity, when the laborious efforts of the old ways prove their worth, have been inspirational and solidified his dedication to working slowly in accordance with traditional process perfected over generations.
“I never received any manual or written instructions,” said Takaki. “You can’t learn these things from a book, only by doing them over and over.” That’s how you learn to adapt to conditions that vary from day to day, from year to year, from one side of the mountain to the other. “You have to learn how to inspect the crop, understand it and respond to it.” Many express surprise and wonder to learn that Takaki still works according to ancient methods when most others have expedited the process to reduce labor and costs. But he sees most so-called advances as shortcuts that may increase profits but are sure, in his eyes, to deliver an inferior product to the consumer.
One of the most egregious and proliferative shortcuts is to mix pure kudzu starch with cornstarch or potato starches. A derth of proper regulations on labeling allows mixtures to be labeled honkudzu (pure kudzu) regardless of the percentage of pure kudzu it contains. Labeled as honkudzu, these mixed products are supplied to consumers at a fraction of the cost to consumers who often don’t know the difference. “It’s a vicious cycle,” said Takaki. “People unknowingly use an inferior product and thus no longer understand the properties of pure kudzu. Without that understanding they can no longer differentiate between higher and lower grade products.
“No one wants to invest this kind of time in their products anymore. They want to make and sell as quickly as possible,” he said. But any shortcuts at any stage in the process will compromise pure kudzu’s prized nodogoshi, the unique silky quality in the mouth and glide down the throat, and those are compromises Takaki is unwilling to make. He promises his customers 100% pure pearly white honkudzu made from domestically wildcrafted roots using traditional methods. Though it can be a lonely pursuit, he remains singularly dedicated.