Greengrocer Koji Ueda has been espousing the virtues of "Kyo-yasai," heirloom vegetables of Kyoto, for about 50 years.
He tells customers how the Shogoin turnip, the Kujo green onion, the Kamo eggplant and the mibuna potherb mustard taste and offers tips on the best ways to cook them in front of his store.
"When our customers tell me they tasted good, I feel that I was able to get my message across," says Ueda, 71, the third-generation proprietor of long-standing greengrocer Kanematsu. "Food is the ultimate form of communication, isn’t it?"
Kanematsu, established in 1882, sits in a corner of Nishiki Market, called the "Kitchen of Kyoto."
Traditional vegetables grown in Kyoto Prefecture have climbed in popularity over the decades. But they were not always well-known, particularly outside the ancient capital.
Kanematsu opened a shop inside a Tokyo department store in the early 1980s.
Ueda remembers a woman buying a Kujo green onion asking him to cut off its green part.
Ueda was astonished because it is the best part of the vegetable.
"That was how much Kyo-yasai were recognized at that time," he said.
Ueda was the eldest son in the family, but his father, Kosaku, never told him to take over the business. While studying at the Faculty of Agriculture of Kyoto University, he considered getting a job at a company.
But he could tell that his father, whose favorite phrase was "vegetables produced in Kyoto taste good," was proud of the family business.
In his father’s time, the store began buying vegetables direct from farmers. His dad would say, "We bought (vegetables) that grew on one 'tan’ (about 10 acres)."
Ueda would rinse the dirt off the carrots with cold water and load so many cabbages from the field that they nearly filled a large truck.
Visiting the farmers, he learned about Kyo-yasai. They called the Kamo eggplant the "water and fertilizer guzzler" because growing them sucks up time and effort.
"They’re large and taste rich," says Ueda. "Their high price tag is acceptable."
He ran a restaurant called Yaoya no Nikai, meaning "above the greengrocer," on the second floor of the Kanematsu store from 2001 to 2016. It served "obanzai," traditional dishes of Kyoto.
"We sold only eight sets on the first day. I remember that very well," says Ueda’s wife, Shoko, 70, who helped out and came up with the menu.
But after a while, they were serving more than 100 sets a day.
The "senmaizuke" pickle of the Shogoin turnip was one of Yaoya no Nikai’s specialties.
It can be easily prepared using a home-use pickling container. Tender yet textured, the natural flavor of the vegetable comes through strongly in the dish.
Kanematsu’s current proprietor is his son Kinji. Kanematsu has outlets in Hankyu Department stores in Osaka and Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture. The store in Nishiki Market is currently closed and a new store is scheduled to open around April.
Shogoin turnip (kabura) (500 grams net weight)
10 x 10 cm dried kombu kelp
Some chopped dry chili pepper (togarashi)
20 grams salt (4 percent of turnip's weight)
1 Tbsp sugar
1 or 2 bunches "mibuna" leaves if available
Thickly peel turnip, cut horizontally into half-moon slices around 2-mm thick.
Have pickling container with screw-type lid ready. Place turnip slices in layers so they partly overlap. Sprinkle salt evenly on layers. Place mibuna as is on top as if drawing a circle. Turn screw to apply pressure and leave overnight.
If a container with a screw-type lid is not available, use a storage container and place a weight on top.
Remove turnip and mibuna from container, pour out water. Cut kelp into 6 to 7 pieces. Place some kelp and chili pepper between 3 to 4 slices of turnip. Repeat and form layers. Add vinegar and sugar in parts. Top with mibuna and apply pressure. If you prefer, sugar may be omitted.
Enjoy from the next day. Cut mibuna into 5-cm pieces. Cut kelp into fine strips and serve with turnip.
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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column