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Japan’s historic love of corn

by Makiko Itoh

The fact that corn or maize has a Japanese name — tōmorokoshi — indicates that it entered the country centuries ago, before it was the norm to import the name of a food as-is and spell it out phonetically (as with tomatoes or asparagus, for instance).

Corn was first introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in 1579, in Nagasaki or Shikoku, and was originally called nanban-morokoshi. “Nanban” was a term that came from China that means “southern savages,” and was used to refer to any number of things that came from overseas. The name changed later to its current one; the part (also read as kara) refers to China’s Tang Dynasty, and is still used for food and other items that may have originated in China or simply overseas, such as tōgarashi (chili peppers). The “morokoshi” part of the name means sorghum, because this new plant was mistakenly thought to be a bigger version of that grain.

The type of corn the Portuguese brought with them from South America was flint corn, which produces hard kernels that are ground up as meal or fed to animals. There are a few records of ground corn used as food for humans (it was used to make mochi-like cakes in Nagasaki, for example), but its main use overseas was as feed for livestock, and since meat consumption was banned or discouraged during the Edo Period (1603-1867), meaning there wasn’t much animal farming, production of corn didn’t take off in Japan until the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Today, Japan is the world’s biggest importer of corn, three-quarters of which comes from the United States. Most of it is for animal feed.

Sweet corn was first grown domestically in Hokkaido in the 1900s, when the northern island underwent large-scale development as farmland, but it didn’t become widely popular until the 1950s and ’60s. Hokkaido still dominates domestic corn production. Sweet corn is now a familiar and popular vegetable around the country, and fresh corn is a welcome fixture during the summer.

While purists prefer it to be simply boiled in salt water, a very Japanese way of cooking corn on the cob is to boil it briefly and then grill it while brushing the surface with soy sauce or a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sugar. The nutty, salty flavor of the burned soy sauce is a perfect foil for the sweetness of the corn, and the smell as it cooks is irresistible. Grilled corn on the cob is a regular item at summertime festivals and barbecues.

Out of season, frozen and canned corn are common household staples. Sweet corn is used in all kinds of dishes, such as stir-fries and tempura, but the most popular corn recipe is a thick, smooth, creamy soup or potage, simply called corn soup or corn-cream soup. It’s by far the most popular Western-style soup in Japan; kids often mean corn soup when they say “soup.” While corn soups exist almost everywhere that sweet corn is produced, the Japanese version — pureed corn, onion and milk, thickened with a roux or potatoes — belongs to the yōshoku category of Western-style Japanese cuisine: Western cooking methods and ingredients adapted to Japanese tastes, such as tonkatsu and spaghetti Napolitan.

This month’s recipe is for a quick and easy chilled creamy corn soup that is refreshing on a hot day. Silken tofu is used as the thickener instead of the usual flour or potato and milk. Why not give it a try?


Recipe: chilled creamy corn soup

Serves 4 to 5

Ingredients

3 or 4 corn cobs, or 1 can (400 g) of corn
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp butter or vegetable oil
1 block (300 g) kinugoshi (silken tofu)
1 tbsp Saikyo miso
1 tbsp mentsuyu (noodle dipping sauce)
2-3 cups (400-500 ml) crushed ice
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley for garnish

Scrape the kernels off the cobs with a knife. Reserve the liquid for the soup.

Saute the onion in the butter or oil until softened and translucent. Add the corn and saute until soft. Leave to cool.

Put the corn, onion, reserved corn liquid and tofu in a blender or food processor and mix until smooth. Optionally strain the puree through a sieve to make it really smooth. Return the mixture to the blender, and add the miso, mentsuyu and ice. Process until the ice is finely crushed. Add some water if the soup is too thick, and season with salt, pepper or extra mentsuyu to taste.

Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

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.

  • Chandrakant Kulkarni

    A ‘soup’ made from all parts of a Corn Ear is a great remedy for Kidney Stones!