One of the major impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the disruption to Japan’s food supply chain. The closing of schools and daycare centers, as well as restaurants and other food-related businesses, has meant that many suppliers have temporarily lost their usual customers. As the national state of emergency drags on, the disappearance of the usual sales routes for perishable foods has become ever more serious.

The domestic dairy industry has been hit particularly hard. School lunch programs, the main consumer of fresh milk, have not been in operation due to school closures, and milk sales took a further hit because of all the restaurant closures. In Hokkaido, the nation’s top dairy producing region, an additional blow has been the almost complete absence of tourists who usually buy lots of local dairy-based gifts, the prefecture’s pride and joy.

Faced with this situation, private and public organizations have sprung into action. Both the Hokkaido Prefectural Government and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) are urging the public to consume more milk and other dairy products. Hokkaido has a campaign called the SOS Milk Challenge, and MAFF has started a YouTube campaign called Plus One Project that asks everyone to have one more carton of milk or container of yogurt than usual, featuring fresh-faced farm girls and MAFF employees in cow costumes.

Consider crying for this onion: Now’s the season for sweet, juicy shin-tamanegi (new-harvest onions). Since they don't store well, they're one of the vegetables growers may have to discard unless more people buy them. | MAKIKO ITOH
Consider crying for this onion: Now’s the season for sweet, juicy shin-tamanegi (new-harvest onions). Since they don’t store well, they’re one of the vegetables growers may have to discard unless more people buy them. | MAKIKO ITOH

Vegetable and fruit growers are also facing a distribution crisis. The National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (Zen-Noh) has set up a special section of its JA Town online store offering produce boxes with a carton of milk thrown in at greatly reduced prices. Shokubunka, a company that sells gourmet foods from Tokyo’s Toyosu market, is selling high-end produce, seafood and other items direct to consumers at steep discounts on its Rakuten store.

Third-party businesses are coming to the industry’s rescue, too. Convenience store chain Lawson has started selling produce normally sold at an Ibaraki Prefecture michi no eki (a roadside rest stop and entertainment facility popular with tourists) farmer’s market at five of its Tokyo metropolitan-area stores. Meanwhile, fast food chain Mos Burger is cooperating with Matsuno Vegetable Garden, a produce supplier, to sell Help the Farmers boxes online that contain a mix of vegetables and fruit from farmers who have lost business. Individual farms, too, have been offering their produce for sale directly to customers at reduced prices, spreading the word with social media.

What can we, as consumers, do to help? The easiest thing is to eat a lot of in-season fruits and vegetables or patronize businesses that are helping to distribute produce from farmers in trouble. And consider adding a little more dairy to your diet, if you can.

The main recipe here is a variation on the classic French chilled soup vichyssoise, which is usually made with leeks. I’ve used new-harvest onions instead, which don’t keep as long as regular onions and are in season right now. Their mild taste and sweetness also makes them perfect for salads, while miso adds a boost of umami to the soup. This is a nice lunch on a hot, sticky day.

Recipe: Creamy onion soup and new harvest onion and chicken salad

Serves 2

Prep 10 mins., cook 45 mins., plus refrigeration time

200 grams boneless chicken breast

2 large new-harvest onions

1 bay leaf

1 small potato

A few sprigs of flat leaf parsley

250 milliliters full-fat milk

20 grams butter

2 tablespoons white (light brown) miso

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons plain yogurt

For the dressing:

2 tablespoons ponzu sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Slice the onions thinly. Set aside ½ (about one onion) in a bowl, cover and refrigerate. Peel and slice the potato. Roughly chop one to two parsley sprigs.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Place the chicken in a large frying pan with about ⅓ of the remaining sliced onion, bay leaf and the rest of the parsley, and add enough water to cover the chicken and onion completely. Bring up to a boil, cook for three minutes then turn off the heat. Cover the pan with a lid and leave for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, saute the remaining onion in the butter in a pan until the onion is half translucent. When the chicken is done, take it out, cool and refrigerate.

Strain the chicken cooking liquid through a sieve, measure out 250 milliliters and add it, plus the potato, to the pan. (The rest of the liquid can be saved as a base for another soup). Bring to boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook until the potato is very tender, about 15 minutes. Add the milk and heat, but don’t let it boil. Dissolve the miso in a small amount of the soup in a ladle, and add to the pan. Puree the soup with a blender or food processor until smooth. Cool, then chill in the refrigerator.

Stir the yogurt into the soup. Taste, and add salt and pepper as needed.

To make the salad, combine the dressing ingredients. Slice or shred the chicken breast, combine with the refrigerated sliced onions and dressing, and toss. Grind more black pepper on top.

Top both the soup and salad with chopped parsley. Serve with bread or rice.

As we all stay home due to the COVID-19 outbreak, The Japan Times is making Makiko Itoh’s recipe archive available to all readers — subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.