22 Jul The start of summer twice
Summer reaches Karatsu before it reaches Maine. June brings an early bounty to western Japan. Just a few weeks ago in Karatsu, the days felt just as these days do, warm and clear but not yet sultry. I watched the ume ripen. On a day when they were ready, and I was too, I plucked them from the trees and made umeboshi. It was a small harvest this year, half of the norm, by which I mean a mere 30 kilos or so. With our attentions turned to Kuniko these last many months, the trees have gone unattended. A pruning is in order.
The ume harvest coincides with the rakkyo harvest. Any combination of the word Chinese or Japanese paired with the word onion or scallion will describe rakkyo, Allium chinense, in English. Our thoughts turn to rakkyo in Karatsu just as the mania for that other allium, ramps, hits New England. I looked for rakkyo in my favorite little market that favors naturally grown or foraged produce, but week after week there was none. I had almost given up when H checked one last time and came home bearing two kilos of rakkyo, the dirt still clinging to their papery white skins.
Traditionally, rakkyo are pickled in rice vinegar and salt. Most would also add sugar to this mix, but I follow Kuniko’s methods and omit the sweetener. Cleaning the rakkyo takes a bit of time, but all is easily accomplished in an afternoon. And the fuss is well worth it for a jar full of beautiful white bulbs. Rakkyo is best known as a side to accompany the popular comfort food Japanese curry. Rakkyo’s taste is as you would expect of an Allium, onion and garlic blended. Soaked in salty-sour brine, the crisp, pungent bite is a perfect foil to the spicy paste of Japanese curry over rice. But we don’t eat curry enough to warrant a full jar of pickled rakkyo. Instead we mince rakkyo and spoon it over grilled vegetables that have been drizzled with olive oil. Or we slice it into thin wedges to mix with cucumber chunks, ribbons of shiso, sprouts, and myoga. Dressed it in olive or sesame oil with a bit of soy, it is a perfect summer salad.
One of the perks of migrating between Maine and Japan is that if we time it right, we can enjoy the start of summer twice. This time a month ago, my antenna was tuned to ume and rakkyo in Japan. In a radical shift, it’s now pointed towards berries and beans in New England. Either way, the anticipation and delight is just the same.
Kuniko’s Ultra-orhodox (no sugar) pickled rakkyo
Buy good-sized rakyou, not too small, and as many as you think you will eat in a year
You must pickle rakkyo right away as they will sprout quickly…
Wash in water
Cut off tips and roots to leave just the round bulb remaining
Place in a bowl and scrub with a handful of salt to rub off dirty outer skins
Rinse very well and drain
Weigh the rakkyo
Calculate 5-7% of rakkyo’s weight and measure out that much pickling salt
With the rakkyou in a clean bowl, fill with water until the rakkyo are just covered
Drain but reserve thewater and measure it
Calculate 40% of the water volume measured out above prepare that much vinegar. (Chidorisu, a refined rice vinegar from Kyoto is wonderful but rather expensive. Other rice vinegars will do)
Calculate 60% of the water volume measured out above prepare that much water.
Add the salt to dissolve
All of these ratios can be altered to taste.
Toss drained rakyou with another handful of salt in a bowl
Boil plenty of water
Add salted rakkyo a bit at a time to the boiling water and blanch very quickly
Transfer to a bowl of clean cold water
Drain the blanched rakkyo and add them to the ni-hai-zu brine
Let cool and put into sterilized jars