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Japanese summer garnishes invigorate the taste buds

by Makiko Itoh

In Japanese cooking, garnish is not just added to a dish to make it look pretty. The word to describe the herbs and vegetables that accompany a dish is yakumi, which means “medicinal flavor,” and originally referred to the concoctions that practitioners of Chinese medicine made using various ingredients from nature.

Even in the 21st century, many people believe that the use of these fragrant, fresh herbs and vegetables is good for your health as well as your taste buds.

With a few exceptions such as green onions (available year-round in various varieties), the use of yakumi, like most other aspects of Japanese cuisine, is quite seasonal. The yakumi that are used in dishes most often in the summertime are tender green shiso leaves and two types of ginger: shin-shōga (new-harvest ginger root) and the flower buds of myōga (ginger). They are served on vegetables, meat or fish; on hiyayakko (chilled tofu); with cold noodles such as soba, sōmen and hiyamugi; and more.

Shiso, a type of perilla, has become quite well known in the West in the last decade. Micro-shoots of both the red-purple and green varieties show up as garnishes on dishes at trendy restaurants in Europe and North America, but in Japanese cooking the purple variety is rarely eaten raw — it is mostly used in the preparation of umeboshi (salt-preserved ume plums).

The young tender leaves of the green (ao) variety are often simply called ōba (big leaf) and are eaten both cooked and raw.

Shiso leaves can be used to bundle up sushi or plain rice with various fillings, to wrap around meatballs and pan-fry, and so on. They’re also deliciously delicate and crispy as tempura.

While shiso leaves are available year-round these days, their true season is early to late summer. Not only do ōba add a refreshing, slightly minty flavor to a dish, they are packed with nutrients such as beta-carotene, vitamin B, potassium and calcium.

Fresh shiso leaves may also aid digestion. They have been served whole with sashimi and other fish dishes since the mid to late Edo Period (1603-1867), as it was believed that they helped to combat potential food poisoning.

Myōga is closely related to the familiar ginger root, but the tender reddish-pink tinged flower buds are eaten, rather than the roots. (The stems, blanched under earth, are eaten in some regions.) They have a milder flavor than ginger, and a crisp texture that is enhanced by slicing or shredding them lengthwise with the grain.

Like ginger, the hot and refreshing flavor of myōga is considered in Chinese medicine to have a warming effect on the body and to perk up a lagging appetite. Besides being used as yakumi, myōga buds are delicious pickled in nuka (fermented rice bran), marinated in miso and so on.

One final treat of the season is tender young shin-shōga, which tastes less hot and is a lot less fibrous than mature ginger. This type of ginger is used in gari, the vinegar-flavored ginger that comes with sushi. It can be eaten shredded or grated like mature ginger. The flower shoots are often used as a decorative and edible garnish too.

The accompanying recipe for cucumber tataki (bashed cucumber) with summertime yakumi is a cooling side salad or vegetable dish that can be varied in several ways: simply flavored with salt only; or with some vinegar, sesame oil or both. Enjoy!

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

Recipe: cucumber with summertime

Serves 4 as a side dish

Ingredients

3 slim Japanese cucumbers

¼ tsp salt (or to taste)

1 tbsp rice vinegar (optional)

½ tsp sugar (optional)

10-12 large green shiso leaves

2 large or 3 small myōga ginger buds

2 tsp sesame oil (optional)

1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Wash the cucumbers and cut off the ends. Using a rolling pin or a beer bottle, bash the cucumbers several times until they are partially crushed. Cut each cucumber into four or five pieces.

Put the cucumber pieces in a bowl and mix with the salt and pepper. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for several hours if possible.

Finely shred the myōga ginger buds lengthwise. Shred the shiso leaves. Put both in a bowl of cold water for about five minutes.

Just before serving, drain off any excess moisture from the cucumbers. Mix with the vinegar and sugar if desired, and arrange on plates. Top with the shredded shiso and myōga. Optionally drizzle with the sesame oil and sprinkle on the sesame seeds.

Tip: Add some cold shredded poached chicken or sliced roast pork to turn it into a main-dish salad.