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Friday, June 17, 2011


A Japanese harbinger of Spring, reinterpreted in Hawaii

by Nanette Geller

In all cultures, Spring is a time to celebrate rebirth and renewal. Nowhere is it greeted more joyously than in Japan, where the unfolding of the season brings one symbol after another into focus as an excuse to party. February’s plum blossoms remind us that the snow will soon melt.  A couple of months later, weather programs report the cherry blossom front as it moves north, lingering for just a few precious days in each location.

The first bamboo shoots of Spring are greeted not only with joy, but also with appetite. The mountain ranges to the East and West of the ancient capitol of Kyoto are home to both temples and bamboo forests. Small wonder, then, that Kyoto cuisine includes special Spring dishes, many of them in the Buddhist vegetarian tradition, celebrating the season with fresh bamboo shoots.

Another Japanese ingredient which shouts “Spring” is ki-no-me, the tender young leaves of the sansho bush (Japanese prickly ash, closely related to Sichuan pepper). The way they harmonize with bamboo shoots is a perfect illustration of the saying “what grows together goes together.” Ki-no-me can be used whole, laid across the top of a dish as a fragrant last-minute garnish. They can also be blanched and blended with sweet white miso for a thick dressing which is delicious with bamboo shoots.

One typical Spring favorite in Kyoto is waka-take-ni, a simple simmered dish of wakame seaweed and bamboo shoots (takenoko). In temple cooking it is simmered with a vegetarian broth, but in homes and restaurants can be made with katsuo dashi (stock made from shaved dried bonito and kelp). It is served topped with fresh ki-no-me as the perfect finishing touch.


wakame and palm heart


I recently used fresh Big Island hearts of palm (from Wailea Ag Group) in a dish which is often made with bamboo shoots: sautéed and coated with katsuo shavings. The texture and flavor were not the same, but were remarkably reminiscent of bamboo shoot.

I decided to try substituting hearts of palm in waka-take-ni

I used katsuo dashi with a glug each of sake and mirin. I wanted to maintain the color so I used just a touch of shoyu and then added salt to taste. I also added some ginger juice, typical in this dish (just squeeze some freshly grated ginger with your fingers and discard the pulp). Kyoto cuisine features delicate seasoning so I kept it on the light side. The idea is to enhance the flavors of the main ingredients, not mask them.

While the cut-up hearts of palm were simmering, I soaked dry wakame to rehydrate it. When the hearts of palm were almost tender I added the wakame and continued simmering until both were tender. I allowed it to cool to room temperature before plating.

In the absence of ki-no-me, I added a few drops of ginger juice as a finishing touch. Next time (and there will be a next time!) I think I’ll try a light sprinkle of grated lemon zest as well.

No one could mistake this for bamboo shoot, but the dish was definitely successful. Of course, without bamboo shoot I can’t call it waka-take-ni. I wonder if anyone else has ever made simmered wakame and hearts of palm?

Wailea Ag Group will be at KCC farmers market tomorrow with fresh hearts of palm. Go ahead and try it, it’s delicious cooked or raw. And if you decide to simmer it with wakame, let me know how it turns out.

I really love hearts of palm. What a great way to use it. Must be similar to daikon, here, yes?
Have you had fresh hearts of palm? The taste and texture are quite different from canned. I think it's more like bamboo shoot (takenoko) than daikon. Daikon has a much sharper flavor, especially raw.

I love daikon, especially grated (daikon oroshi). Daikon is also delicious simmered (nimono) so I'll bet it would be good made with wakame, the same way I did with the hearts of palm. I'll have to try it.

Thanks for your comment!

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