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Taste Japan | Dreamy Junsai
When it comes to stunning vistas, it’s hard to top the beauty of the Tohoku region. Comprising six prefectures in the north of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, the region has bounced back voraciously from the tsunami and nuclear devastation to treat visitors to its scenic countryside, fresh waters and thriving miso production.
Junsai is a specialty of Akita Prefecture, more precisely of Mitanechô, a two-hour drive from Akita into the mountainous area. A kind of water weed that only grows in ponds with premium water quality, Junsai is coveted for its fibre content, anti-bacterial property, as a skin food for elasticity and smooth complexion, as well as the fine, springy texture it lends to dishes. With abundant water from the surrounding Shirakami mountain range, this area has become suitably known as the “town of Junsai”. I was first struck by the serenity of the Junsai ponds. Looking very much like tranquil lotus ponds but with tiny leaves and flowers, it’s hard to imagine that this is home to 90% of Japan’s Junsai production.
Harvesting is done around mid-May to beginning of September, usually by women who will handpick the Junsai in small boats. I really wasn’t cut out for the job! While trying to maintain balance in the boat, steering with the stick, harvesters have to get to the tiny buds tangled underneath. As a natural defense of the Junsai, they are slimy and covered with clear, gelatinous coating, and they kept slipping out of my hands. I was also told to always pluck a big bud with a small bud attached. After half an hour in a light drizzle, all I harvested was an unrewarding bit of Junsai! We met a harvester, Toriko, who used to be able to pick 30 kg a day, though because of changes in the water, he was only able to harvest 15kg now. No wonder much of fresh Junsai is cured in a little vinegar to preserve it!
We were souper stoked to be shown the application of Junsai by Chef Masaya Yamada in his restaurant. Traditional ways include eating with ponzu, wasabi, shoyu or miso with vinegar, simple ways that do not destroy the gelatinous exterior. His new applications innovatively create aesthetically pleasing ways of enjoying Junsai. We thoroughly enjoyed the cold broad bean soup with marinated Junsai and barley grass powder, as well as puff pastry stuffed with minced Junsai and topped with brown sugar syrup and kinoko powder. Do seize the rare opportunity to harvest and taste Junsai if you are in Akita!
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