The main clue as to when potatoes first entered Japan comes from its name in Japanese, jaga-imo.
When the tubers, which originate in the Americas, were first introduced to the port city of Nagasaki in 1598, they were brought in by Dutch traders from Djajakarta or Jacatra, as Jakarta, Indonesia, was known at the time. Therefore they were called jagatora–imo (imo being the word used for all potato-like vegetables). The term was eventually shortened to the jaga-imo we know today.
In the early years the potato was regarded as an ornamental plant, a curiosity for plant collectors rather than a food source. The earliest record of its cultivation as a food crop dates from 1706, when it was grown in Hokkaido. In the late 18th through early 19th century, potato production was encouraged as a way to combat famine when the rice crop was poor, especially in northern Japan, where growing rice was difficult. There is also evidence that the indigenous Ainu people of the north grew potatoes, too, possibly influenced by contact with the Russians.
Large-scale potato production did not start until the Meiji Era (1868-1912). The Meiji government made the development and settlement of Hokkaido a top priority, to discourage any encroachment by the Russians, among other reasons. Large numbers of military settlers called tondenhei as well as regular civilians were encouraged to settle in the north and cultivate the land. Since growing rice was difficult in the cold, dry climate, potatoes were proposed as a viable alternative.
One of the early proponents of potato growing was Baron Ryukichi Kawata, the senior executive of an agricultural company in Hakodate. In 1908, he arranged for several varieties of potato plants to be imported from the West to be trialed at a local farm.
As one variety proved to be particularly successful, Baron Kawata’s company encouraged farmers to plant their fields with it. From there, the potato gradually spread throughout Hokkaido. The variety that was trialed so successfully was named Danshaku, which means baron, in Baron Kawata’s honor. Danshaku potatoes still dominate the domestic potato market, accounting for around 60 percent of overall production. The second-most popular potato variety, May Queen, was introduced sometime in the 1910s. Although around 99 varieties of potato are grown in Japan today, these two make up the bulk of the yield. Danshaku potatoes have thick, rough skins and a floury texture, while May Queens have a firm, waxy texture. Hokkaido is still by far the leading producer of potatoes according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, with nearly 80 percent of all domestic production. That said, this year’s crop was damaged by the 2016 typhoon season, and potatoes (especially in chip form) are in shorter supply than usual.
Initially, potatoes were associated with European cuisine in Japan. But as yōshoku Western-style Japanese cuisine became more popular and potatoes became more affordable, they were soon being used in washoku traditional Japanese dishes. One of the quintessential “mother’s cooking” dishes, nikujaga, is a homey combination of potatoes simmered with meat in a savory-sweet broth.
Tiny, waxy new potatoes are a special treat in the spring and early summer. New potatoes that are available now are usually from Nagasaki or other areas of Kyushu, with northern-grown ones coming later. In the Kanto region, for example, my personal favorite variety is the Kita Akari, which is delicious when it’s young as well as when it’s mature.
This month’s recipe combines new potatoes with butter, another product that has a lot of significance in the history of agriculture in Hokkaido, as well as the typical Japanese flavors of soy sauce, mirin cooking alcohol, sake and sugar. It’s great as a side dish, a drinking snack, or just on its own.
Salty-sweet buttery new potatoes
Serves three to four people as a side dish
13-15 small new potatoes (1 bag)
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon sake
1 tablespoon mirin rice wine
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
a pinch of sanshō pepper powder
2 tablespoons chopped green onions, or a couple of fresh sanshō leaves (konoha)
Scrub the new potatoes well with a stiff brush. You can leave the peel on or scrape it off with a knife.
Place the potatoes in a pan and add enough cold water to cover, plus the salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Boil the potatoes until firm but cooked through, about 5-6 minutes. Drain the potatoes well.
Heat up a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the butter. When it has melted, add the potatoes and saute until lightly browned. Add the sake, mirin, sugar and soy sauce in that order, tossing well between additions. When the potatoes are coated with the sauce and are a deep, glossy brown, turn off the heat and add the sanshō pepper powder.
Serve garnished with the chopped green onions or sanshō leaves. (Makiko Itoh)