Tears well up in 88-year-old Izue Hamada’s eyes as she holds up a halved nari (cycad) nut for me to see.
“Nari nuts are treasures!” she says. “If not for nari, we islanders would have died during the war.”
Nari nuts are the staple crop of Amami Oshima, an island located between Kyushu and Okinawa. Historically, nari nuts were used in the production of local miso, but recently this cottage industry has become a commercial enterprise, resulting in miso that contains less of the nuts and more additives.
Hamada’s reverence and deep gratitude for the native nut is palpable and tears well up in my eyes too as I hug her frail body to show my empathy.
I met her by happenstance as I strolled down a narrow lane in Uttabaru, one of Amami Oshima’s remote hamlets. I was there to meet 84-year-old Akiho Wada, who, when he retired, returned to the island after several decades of living on the mainland of Japan and was single-handedly attempting to resurrect the production of artisanal nari miso.
Nari grows on Amami Oshima and Agunishima — two of Japan’s southernmost islands — as well as in other subtropical or tropical regions. Once plentiful, cycads around the world have decreased overall and, according to the University of California Museum of Paleontology, are almost extinct in the wild.
On Amami Oshima, nari still thrive, but the island inhabitants are no longer consuming the nuts as part of their daily diet. During World War II, when most fishermen were sent to fight for Japan, they even became the island’s main source of protein.
Some locals, such as Hamada, are now concerned about this decreasing consumption. She is one of the few remaining people who take the trouble to harvest and process the nuts.
A part-time worker sits at a small table in Hamada’s garage, halving the oval-shaped nuts one at a time with a lever device similar to a paper cutter. She is paid per nut and it will take her three hours to process four boxes of nari, containing a total of 100 kg. The unshelled nari halves are then scattered across a wide blue sheet to dry in the sunshine while being cooled and buffeted by the breeze rising off of the nearby ocean.
The dried nari nut halves are subsequently stored to be processed as needed over the course of the year.
Cycads, like many native plants, carry toxins that need to be leached out before their nuts can be consumed. Mountain vegetables typically require an overnight water soak to remove bitterness, but nari nuts may need to be soaked for two weeks to remove their poisons.
After being pried from their shells, the dried nari nuts are placed in running water — such as that of a stream — for several days, depending on the weather and season.
In the distant past, the inhabitants of Amami Oshima produced miso using mostly nari nuts and rice, with only a small amount of soybeans added as they were not grown on the island. After World War II, soybeans became readily accessible and replaced most of the nari nuts in miso. Nowadays, commercially produced nari miso contains soybeans, rice, nari nuts, koji (aspergillus oryzae bacteria), salt, MSG, and Vitamin B2. For the most part, fermenting nari miso at home has fallen from favor on Amami Oshima. And it is not the only native dish that is disappearing.
Although some rural Amami Oshima residents still eat traditional local dishes, they tend to be elderly. I also found that city dwellers on Amami Oshima (those who resided in the island’s largest towns) did not eat local island food at home — and neither did their parents. Those in their 30s and 40s have grown up eating mainstream Japanese food, only experiencing their native cuisine when visiting grandparents.
Akito Wada told me that when he returned to his native hamlet of Uttabaruhe he realized how few young people remained on the island. He decided it was his duty to put more effort into promoting native customs and foods, with the aim of building cultural pride in the hopes of reversing the steady exodus of youth. In addition to producing his own nari miso, he also sells local salt and udon. He is a big promoter of these local ingredients, but on a small scale.
Wada invited me to his hamlet’s community center to sample native dishes cooked by the local women’s group and to also observe part of nari miso production process. I arrived on the morning of the third day after his nari nut mixture has been inoculated with koji — a necessary ingredient to promote fermentation.
Wada had built a wooden framed object that resembled the back of a tatami mat as a makeshift koji-growing table. After steaming the rice and detoxified nari separately, he mixed the two together and spread them across the wooden frame. Once cooled to body temperature, he dusted the rice and nari mixture with koji spores, cut and turned the mixture over, and dusted it lightly once more. He then covered the mixture with a blanket, and left it to incubate. Koji grows happily at around 33 degrees Celsius, so it is crucial to control the temperature during the three days it takes for it to form a soft, white covering over the surface of rice and nari nut mixture.
The proximity of the water results in a fairly microbe-free environment thanks to the airy room with large open windows that allow for a constant breeze.
At the end of the third day after inoculation, Wada will steam soybeans, smash and cool them to body temperature, and mix them with salt and the koji-coated rice and nari nuts. Compared to other regional styles of miso, nari miso is made more often with a high percentage of rice koji (similar to the Kyoto style) and thus tends to be lighter and sweeter than other varieties. When made well, it is lovely.
Not having access to nari nuts near my rural Saitama home, I have been contemplating substituting chestnuts when trying my hand at ersatz nari miso. Though certainly not the same, the idea is nonetheless intriguing.
Nari miso may be viewed as old fashioned by locals, but it has potential to become widely popular on the mainland, and could even put Amami Oshima on the map as a destination island.