In winter, the humble daikon is the ultimate utility vegetable

by Makiko Itoh

Contributing Writer

The prices for fresh vegetables are much higher than normal for the second year in a row, due to the cold weather and the typhoon back in fall.

Even the humble daikon, the big white radish that’s a staple of the winter months, is a lot more expensive. It’s still one of the most affordable and useful vegetables at the supermarket, however, and it can be eaten cooked, raw or pickled from top to tail, including the leaves.

The daikon was introduced to Japan from the continent sometime in the Jomon (10,000-200 B.C.) or Yayoi periods (200 B.C.-250 A.D.).

A receipt for bundles of daikon was discovered on the site of the palace of the seventh-century aristocrat Prince Nagaya (Nagaya-no-ōkimi), and daikon is mentioned in the Kojiki, one of the oldest written documents in Japan.

During the Heian Period (794-1185). the green tops, called suzushiro, came to be included as one of the nanakusa, or seven herbs eaten with rice porridge on the seventh day of the new year.

Back in those days the vegetable may have been more similar to the European radish with fairly small roots, but by the Muromachi Period (1392-1573) it was being called by its current name, daikon, which means “big root.”

One of the most famous varieties developed during the Edo Period (1603-1868) was grown in the Nerima region near Edo. The villages in this region were only about 15 kilometers from the city, so farmers could easily deliver their fresh produce to its citzens every day.

Although the Nerima region is now the urban ward of Nerima in Tokyo and apart from a few exceptions is no longer agricultural, Nerima daikon is still cultivated today, and is considered the ideal type for making takuan pickles.

Other well-known daikon varieties include the Sakurajima grown in Kagoshima, the fattest variety of radish in the world that can reach 30 to 40 centimeters in diameter; the Moriguchi from Gifu, which can grow as long as 2 meters; and the sweet and tender Shogoin, an almost spherical variety that is popular in the Kyoto region.

The flavor and texture of a daikon changes from top to tail. The part near the neck is considered the juiciest and sweetest, ideal for simmered dishes; while the thin end is more peppery and fibrous and is best used as pickles or grated.

Don’t throw away the leaves if your daikon comes with them; they’re so packed with vitamins and fiber that they are one of the key ingredients in aojiru, the green nutritional supplement powder that so many Japanese senior citizens imbibe daily for their health.

This chicken and daikon recipe is based on the salty-sweet simmered dishes that were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Try this method with squid too: The cephalopod is often tricky to cook but will be tenderized by the amylase in the daikon.

Nameshi (rice with daikon leaves) also harks back to that time; it was served with sake at modest drinking holes called nameshi-ya in the city of Edo. Add some miso soup and you have a tasty yet frugal meal, suitable for the 21st century.

Simmered chicken and daikon with nameshi

For the rice:

• 2 rice cooker cups (360 ml) white rice

• 400 ml water

• 120 grams daikon leaves (the tops from 1-2 daikon)

• 1 teaspoon salt

For the chicken and daikon:

• 500 grams daikon (½ a medium daikon)

• 1 cm piece ginger

• 300 grams boneless skinless chicken thigh

• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

• ½ tablespoon sesame oil

• 350 ml dashi stock (or 350 ml water and

1 ½ teaspoons instant dashi powder)

• 2 tablespoons sake

• 2 tablespoons mirin

• 2 tablespoons soy sauce

• 1 tablespoon sugar

• 1 piece of yuzu peel

Cook the rice in a rice cooker and then rinse the daikon leaves in several changes of water. Bring a pan of water to a boil, and cook the leaves for 1 ½ to 2 minutes, depending on how thick the stems are.

Drain, and cool rapidly under cold running water. Squeeze out the leaves and sprinkle with the salt. Squeeze the leaves out again to remove any excess water as you rub in the salt. Chop the leaves roughly and set aside.

Cut the chicken into bite sized pieces. Peel the daikon thickly (reserve the peel for miso soup or a stir fry), slice into 3 cm thick pieces, then cut each piece into quarters. Peel and thinly slice the ginger.

Heat up a saucepan with the vegetable and sesame oils over medium-high heat, and add the chicken. Saute the chicken until it has changed color, then remove from the pan and add the daikon and ginger. Saute for 2 minutes.

Return the chicken to the pan with the dashi, sake, mirin, soy sauce and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat, removing any scum, then lower the heat to medium-low, place a piece of crumpled up kitchen parchment paper or an otoshibuta (a small drop lid) in the pan on top of the contents, and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes, until a skewer goes through the daikon easily.

Mix the daikon leaves into the hot rice and serve in rice bowls. Serve the chicken and daikon in another bowl with some of the broth, garnished with shredded yuzu peel.