The rah-rah radish, part I


The cold winter months on Shiraishi Island are dedicated to the daikon, a long, white tapered radish that looks more like a weapon than a vegetable. The kanji for “daikon” literally mean “big root,” but I suspect this is a typo for “big brute.” At 7 to 12 cm in diameter and 30 to 40 cm long, the radish has presence. And it’s surely the only vegetable that can double as a WMD — truly the root of all evil.

Luckily, however, the daikon has sacrificed a life of armament, opting for the Japanese palate instead. And for this reason the radish holds a special place on the Japanese dinner plate. The radish is prepared in a variety of ways, including dried, shredded and grated. It appears in all forms of “nabe” dishes, is shredded and placed under sashimi or is served grated with soy sauce as a sashimi dip. The taste on its own is not so special, but put it with other veggies and it absorbs their flavors, defining the daikon as one of the impostor vegetables.

To “gaijin,” the daikon is an amusing vegetable at best, making us wonder if we’re not really being dai-conned. We wonder: What’s all the rah-rah about the radish? First of all, it’s got a resume more impressive than yours and a fan club bigger than SMAP’s. So crazy are the Japanese about the radish that one suspects a deep underlying radish fetish. The Japanese radish is not like the small red Western radish, so not surprisingly, the Japanese do not have a reddish radish fetish, but a fattish radish fetish. No doubt about it, the Japanese are extremely fond of the big brute.

The radish has roots going back as far as 500 B.C. Japanese people’s ancestors were probably radishes. It is no coincidence that the radish is the perfect size to be cradled in the arms like a baby.

There is a special daikon festival in December every year where they boil it up and serve it to attendees. And last summer, one radish achieved celebrity status when it started growing in the middle of a busy street. The Japanese quickly cordoned off that area of the pavement so the radish would not get run over by cars. It was said that Japanese saw this radish as a symbol of the “gambaru” spirit, or doing one’s best, in these hard economic times. I, however, suspect it was more an uneasy feeling among us all that we too could be living in the street someday. The promising radish, however, didn’t last for long, as someone got maddish about the radish, lopped off its head and killed it.

I recently went through a radish appreciation phase, spurred by an Australian visitor to Shiraishi who was enthralled with the radish and its status on the island. Little did I realize I would be led on a radish chase and a close encounter with the maddish radish murderer.

To be continued next week.