Joan Lambert Bailey currently lives and writes in Tokyo where she is lucky enough to get her hands dirty on a local organic farm. You can read about her adventures learning about Japanese food from seed to harvest to table at Popcorn Homestead or join her on Twitter.
Farmers Market Update: Tokyo, Roppongi Market
by Joan Lambert Bailey
Farmers markets are part of a Japanese food scene that has been changing for some time and appears to be garnering more and more interest in light of the March earthquake. Public concern regarding radioactive fallout on crops and soils has fueled a series of large public demonstrations against nuclear power and has consumers searching for more information than ever about the food they put on the table. As people test their food themselves for radiation they also head to local markets where they can speak directly to growers and producers about their farms, food, and shared concerns about the current situation.
The Roppongi Market, located a few minutes walk from Tameike-sanno station in a part of the city more renowned for nightclubs pulsing to the beat of the most popular DJs and bands, expensive hotels, and high-end dining than fresh fruits and vegetables, is one of a hearty handful of western-style markets popping up around the city. By no means as large as the UN University Market, the nearly forty vendors present this Saturday offered plenty of opportunity to restock the larder for the week and beyond with throngs of seasonal fruits and vegetables along with rice, dried fish, senbei, and even a small selection of household items. As an ensemble tuned their instruments nearby, we made way over to the cluster of colorful awnings to see what deliciousness might be found on this perfect autumn day.
A single fresh okra sprinkled with salt and served on a stick was the unlikely magnet that pulled us over almost immediately to Tokaji Farm’s table where we were confronted with some of the best of the harvest from Shikoku Island. Just south of Osaka, Shikoku is as famous for its 88-temple pilgrimage route as its countless citrus groves and fantastic surfing. A cooperative effort of Kochi area growers, Tokaji’s table sported green yuzu (a Japanese citrus that falls somewhere between lemon and lime), lemons, three kinds of nasu (eggplants), goya (Okinawan bitter melon), peppers sweet and hot, a few last cucumbers, shoga (ginger) to tempt passing customers along with boxes of eggs that would make the Easter bunny proud. Beaten out by another customer for the last bag of okra, I opted instead for the Ginger Syrup Kit. One taste of a sample mixed with sparkling water, there was no way to walk away without it. Containing instructions, one lemon, a huge piece of ginger, pre-measured amounts of Okinawan black sugar and spices, it was all I needed to recreate that delicate sweet-sour taste reminiscent of another homemade favorite: hachimitsu.
While fall is synonymous with cooler temperatures, nashi (pears), and the first kaki (persimmons), it is also the season of the rice harvest. Spotted a bit off to the side, we made our way over to Shigeyuki Kanai’s table. Kanai and his 84-year-old father, the sixth and seventh generations respectively of their family to work their farm in Gunma Prefecture, produce beautiful grains of white, brown, and black rice fed by natural spring waters and weeded by ducks. If that wasn’t enough to charm us into purchasing, the samples sealed the deal. Tiny servings of plain white rice full of good flavor and just the right amount of ‘spring’ in each bite got us to buy some of each for tasty and colorful eating.
A few steps further along we found Kanyo no Sato. Lovely as their rice looked on the table, we thought to pass by in search of other items on our list. The noonday sun caught in the petals of their fall flower bouquets made us pause for another look. And lucky for us it did as we soon discovered they offered not just rice but rice flour, mochi, and genmai (brown rice) meal. Genmai meal – a rougher, larger grind than flour – gently boiled whips up a breakfast cereal similar in concept and consistency to cream-of-wheat, and can be cooked up savory or sweet. Unable to resist the offer of something new, the genmai meal joined some of the homemade mochi squares in our bag.
While sorting out the instructions for making the genmai meal and just as my stomach started to rumble about lunch, we met Kyoko Tanno and her gleaming jars of jam at the neighboring table. Made from fruit and vegetables raised on her two hectare organic farm in Chiba, we couldn’t take our eyes off the brilliant orange of the carrot jam and the fat figs snuggled scrumptiously in their jars. Still a fledgling affair, she established her farm (and dog-walking business) only four years ago after moving south from Sendai. A notebook of English phrases and vocabulary kept behind the table helps her connect with Roppongi’s somewhat large ex-patriot population and provides a bit of fun mental exercise, too. After a bit more chatting in her excellent English and our beginner level Japanese, we came away with a new friend and a jar of that most yummy-looking carrot jam.
Cruising around the corner to the next row of vendors, we found ourselves face-to-face with a few of the year’s last cantaloupe, a selection of green, red, and nearly black grapes, pears, apples, garlic, and chestnuts all coming into their peak season, as well as table after table of vegetables. As we surveyed the scene to decide where we might head next, the gregarious staff at Sansouke Farm offered us samples of edamame and we were hooked. (The free sample is truly, if you ask me and my stomach, the best technique a vendor can employ for drawing in customers and getting them to buy. Works on me almost every time!)
Located in Chiba, Sanosuke Farm is all organic and according to the farmer’s mother, a miracle of growing. While she explained in enthusiastic detail the careful tending of the soil (a variety of animal manures mixed with other composted materials) that resulted in a diverse set of crops healthy enough to fend off pests and disease, she also shared the multiple uses of daizu (soy beans): soy sauce, natto (fermented soy beans), miso, and tofu along with the health benefits of each. Natto is good for the digestive system; edamame are good for the skin as well as tasty with beer; and miso is simply good all the time in nearly any form. A retired junior high school teacher, she seemed born to the farmers market table. Even as she chatted with us she managed to offer samples to passing customers and help them find the perfect sweet potato, eggplant, or squash. Happily falling victim ourselves, we came away with two bags of edamame as well as gifts of sweet potato and togarashi. I’ll relish the memory of our meeting and conversation with every bite.
While the market stalls and their bounty by no means ended at that point, we found our shopping bag heavy, our stomachs ready for lunch, and our legs a bit tired. It was time for a last look around and a final scan of our lists before starting home with our loot. There was absolutely no room for another thing…until we spotted the beautiful display of winter squash at Kosaka Nouen’s table. Located on Tokyo’s west side in Kokobunji, Kosaka raises not just a wide variety of vegetables but also laying hens whose eggs were snapped up nearly as fast as they were set out. But it was the winter squash that caught my eye, and while I’ve hauled eggs home on the train before I don’t relish the idea. Akagawa amaguri or red chestnut pumpkin, prized as much for its flaming orange red skin as its sweet inner flesh, looked like it could withstand a bit of a jostle on the train. Already dreaming of it cut into chunks and cooked with the evening’s rice and a bit of mirin it would make a colorful dish perfect for these autumn days. Let’s just say the bag got a bit heavier.
What we bought:
- Ginger syrup kit from Tokaji Farm
- White, brown, and black rice from Shigeyuki Kanai
- Mochi, rice flour, and genmai meal from Kaya no Sato
- Carrot jam from Tanno Farm
- Edamame from Sanosuke Farm joined gifts of sweet potatoes and togarashi
- Akagawa Amaguri winter squash from Kosaka Nouen
What did you find at the market this week?