Vegetarians in Japan will quickly learn that there are two common options for the filling inside the nori-wrapped onigiri (rice balls) found in convenience stores: umeboshi (pickled plum) or kombu (seaweed — though I recently read that even certain types of prepared kombu might contain some fish extract).
However, there is one less common onigiri option that I quickly snap up whenever it’s offered: takana. Takana, or more accurately, takana-zuke, is made from pickled mustard leaf, and is mildly spicy and crunchy. For a while I was happy enough just knowing that it was a vegetarian onigiri option, but recently I had the urge to investigate where else I could find this delightful food.
Pickled mustard greens find their way into many Asian cuisines, but I was surprised to find the various creative uses for takana-zuke in Japan. You can eat it hot or cold, alone or as okazu (a small side dish accompanying rice), as a topping for ramen or okayu (rice porridge), or as part of a veggie stir-fry.
Realizing takana’s versatility, I began searching online for whatever I could dream up — takana pasta, takana risotto, takana omelette — and found most of my ideas had already been tried, tested and recommended.
One dish that gets my resounding vote of confidence is takana fried rice (takana cha-han). Take your favorite fried rice recipe, and simply add a generous handful of takana-zuke, first drained and stir-fried in sesame oil. Something about the pairing of the pickled greens with the sesame oil makes for an unforgettably satisfying taste, and this is one recipe you’ll want to repeat.
Takana-zuke is available at most supermarkets across Japan. It’s also often sold at street markets as regional specialties, in department stores and at tsukemono (pickle) shops. Takana-zuke keeps for weeks in the refrigerator, even after opening, so you’ll have plenty of time to let the experiments continue. I recently tried it as an addition to artichoke spinach pasta and found it added a pleasant, mild tartness. I even tried a spoonful of it over cheese toast, and it worked perfectly.
I imagine takana will liven up just about any savory dish you can imagine. It works just as well in a variety of non-Japanese dishes, so you’re not likely to run out of ways to incorporate it in your diet any time soon.
Ananda Jacobs is a musician and actress in Tokyo (www.anandajacobs.com). She has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for more than 20 years.