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Some thoughts on the rudiments of rutabaga

by Amy Chavez

I can’t wait to see NHK-G’s special program to air Feb. 23. They are finally going to address a topic I have harbored secret thoughts about since I came to Japan in 1994. NHK is going to broach the topic in a no-holds-barred documentary. The subject is turnip tossing.

I have always maintained that Japan’s giant vegetables, in particular the daikon radish, have other-than-culinary uses, including weaponry. Their aerodynamic shape, weight and perfect palm size-to-daikon ratio make this radish the perfect vegetable to be armed with. With its long pointy nose, it is the shinkansen of radishes that, when accompanied by speed, can turn an otherwise innocent vegetable into a virtual missile. It is an alternative to swords and guns, doesn’t require a license to own or carry, yet still functions as a weapon of minute destruction. The daikon is the pièce de résistance in any Japanese person’s cache of garden vegetables.

How does this relate to turnip tossing? Glad you asked. The turnip is the root of the yellow-fleshed rutabaga. What’s a rutabaga? It’s one of those camper vans you drive across country. Not really. A rutabaga is a turnip from the Brassicaceae (mustard) family, which displays the ancient mustard plant crest on the Brassicaceae family coat of arms. A radish, on the other hand, is the root of the Raphanus sativus (not to be confused with Raphanus strativarius, which is a radish who plays the violin), and is also of the Brassicaceae mustard family.

What I have gleaned from interviews with the Brassicaceae family and friends, and after a close scrutiny of both their coats of arms, is that both the radish and the turnip are not only members of the same mustard family, but are also members of the projectile order of vegetables.

Other than a radish being “pungent and crisp,” we know little how else it differs from its close cousin the turnip. The turnip, on the other hand, is described as “fleshy and thick,” which makes it sound vaguely like something you could cuddle up with on the sofa. So perhaps the biggest difference between a radish and a turnip is that a turnip is the vegetable you’re more likely to end up in a relationship with.

Doing some research on the difference between turnips and radishes, the physical characteristics of the two veggies quickly become intertwined. They are more than kissing cousins — at times they could even pass as twins. Did you know there is a “turnip-shaped radish” called the Sakurajima daikon? Or that the Shinagawa kabu has been described as a “white, daikon-like turnip?”

So perhaps it’s one of those things like chives vs. scallions, root beer vs. sarsaparilla, you say tomato and I say tomato. Same-same but different. Or maybe it goes into the Chiffon category (“It looks like butter, but it’s not — it’s Chiffon!”).

I’m not saying there is no difference between a radish and turnip — I’m saying that I can’t always tell the difference. It’s like trying to tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese people — as soon as you’ve finally got it worked out, a Japanese-looking Chinese person or a Chinese-looking Japanese person will prove you wrong. Or like when you find out that a new coworker with the American accent is actually Canadian. How are we to maintain our stereotypes if these kinds of things keep happening?

The NHK program, however, is not going to highlight any nihilistic tactics of turnips. Nor radishes. They are going to capture the projectile prowess of turnips within the official event of Turnip Tossing. And, ladies and gentleman, there’s a champion in our midst — a 64-year-old Japanese Yoshio Otsuka, highly revered for his passion for reviving strains of extinct turnip species. Rather than using his own revived strain of turnip, however, he used the rutabaga in the World Championships, a turnip noted for its rollability and propensity for sports.

Otsuka was scouted by a NHK representative who encouraged him to enter in the Japan semifinals of the event. From there, Otsuka set his sights on the 2012 International Rutabaga Curling Championship, held last December in the U.S. by Americans who, not being so concerned with nutrition, were able to recognize the rutabaga early on as a gifted vegetable for sport. They quickly hired personal coaches for the rutabagas, organized a rutabaga little league and encouraged them to take part in away games. In America, this is not unusual. Vegetables in the U.S. have been multitasking for hundreds of years. After all, the Americans invented Frisbee, a game that originated by tossing vegetarian pizzas to each other while singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

Otsuka, however, apparently didn’t have much of a sense of humor the first time he was invited to participate in the Japan semifinals. “. . . as a vegetable vendor, I don’t enjoy tossing good produce around,” he is rumored to have retorted. Wow, would you turn down the chance at a game or two with some produce? Surely not.

“Why should I participate in such an event?” he continued, clearly not getting the point, which is, of course: Turnip fame! Turnip fortune! Here’s this turnip vendor, trying to sell his vegetables and make a living, whereas if he promoted their world-class athletic prowess instead, he’d sell far more specimens.

Well, it turns out that the skeptical Otsuka turned down the opportunity for the following reason: He was reluctant to turn on his own turnips. It seemed disrespectful to throw around turnips while he was reviving and promoting the Shinagawa turnip, a rare strain with a history going back 400 years to the Edo Period. While ancestor worship is common in Japan, this is probably taking vegetable parentage a bit too far. Before you know it we’ll have turnip hoji.

But eventually Otsuka saw the merit in tossing the venerated vegetables down a 25-meter bowling lane with the aim of hitting a traffic cone perched at the end. In addition, he saved us all from having to attend endless turnip hoji ceremonies. And in December 2012, he vied to bring home the award winning rutabaga, the Heisman Trophy of turnip athletes.

Did Otsuka win? We’ll have to watch the NHK-G variety documentary on Feb. 23 to find out. My guess is that yes, you can squeeze blood from a turnip. And a radish.

Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite.

  • http://www.facebook.com/charles.f.sommers Charles F. Sommers

    The noble rutabaga is king of the turnip like veggies. Crisp and sweet when eaten raw and absolutely wonderful when mashed and eaten along with a nice serving of haggis on Robert Burns’ night. Haggis, neeps, and taties (mashed potatoes) are traditional foods in Scotland.

  • Hayato Tokugawa

    1) I will never cuddle up with a turnip (or radish) on the sofa. 2) I have at last found a use for the dreaded rutabaga (since I would not eat it, even if I was at death’s door and the rutabaga was my only salvation.
    A great piece of work Amy!