Cultivated Days | Epicurean Ideals from the Heart of Japan
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domestic and wild

A thick blanket of clouds floats by low in the sky casting a gray gloom. A wind felt neither as warm nor cold rattles the screens and leaves flutter to the ground calling to mind the coming flurries of snow that will soon turn south and drift down from Siberia. The first frost will descend in Hokkaido and creep along Japan’s narrow sweep to arrive here in Kyushu in a few weeks. One morning, after a clear and windless night, we will wake to a delicate silver veil draped across a still and slumbering landscape. Though we can see it coming we are lucky that our latitude delays the onset of winter. Here it feels like autumn is still at the wheel.

A couple of weeks ago I wandered into the little vegetable market across from the fish market to look for mukago, the small brown bulbils that form at the base of leaves along the vine of the Japanese yam. The market has an open storefront that faces Nakamachi, a busy market street in downtown Karatsu, with only an awning to shade the produce. I ducked inside and before my eyes had adjusted the old proprietress thrust a mandarin orange into my hand. Here, eat this, she said. It’s a gift. Her husband sat in a far corner, tucked behind the register, cracking and peeling ginkgo nuts for customers who would prefer to avoid such a tedious task. I thanked her and asked after mukago.

Mukago are small and tender, almost bean like. The aerial tubers hold a concentrated flavor of the mountain potato it would propagate if planted. They have the slightest trace of a pleasant bitterness and echo the earthy flavor of a potato, but these tastes are light as they grow in the air and not in the soil. Their texture on the tooth reminds me of taro root, more smooth and silky than starchy. Mukago can start the meal as an appetizer, either fried in olive oil with a generous douse of good coarse sea salt, or fried in light sesame oil and flavored with soy. A bowl of them still hot from the pan offers a salty, oily satisfaction that pairs well with any one of Japan’s fairly indistinguishable lager-type beers. Or mukago can end a meal in takikomi gohan, seasonal ingredients cooked into seasoned rice. Cooking the yam berries together with grains of polished new rice showcases their delicate flavor. 

Eating mukago calls to mind afternoon walks around these hillsides. The leaves have yellowed by now and are falling. But along the mountain roads we see the flossy vines of jinenjo crawling along the line of fences or twining through the jungly mass of trailing plants matted over trees and shrubs. Their papery pods flutter like medallions and a few remaining mukago hold on. I am happiest at this intersection of the domestic and the wild. I feel a spark of joy every time I can connect my daily life to the majestic natural world outside my door through cooking and eating. Ingredients first impress at the table where they are sensual, beautiful to behold, delicious on the tongue, and warm in the belly. From there they entertain the intellect. They spark a curiosity and I find deep satisfaction in understanding where the things I eat come from. Mukago has been that delicious entertainment most recently.

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