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Asparagus was first introduced to Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868) by the Dutch, but as with most exotic plants it was initially grown as an ornamental rather than for eating. In the early 20th century, white asparagus, which is grown by blanching — preventing the emerging spears from being exposed to light — was cultivated in Hokkaido, mainly for export to the European market, although it was served by a few domestic high-end French restaurants.

The vegetable did not become widely cultivated for domestic consumption until the early 1970s. But instead of white asparagus, the green type predominated, as is still the case today. These days, white asparagus is usually only available in canned or bottled form, but green asparagus is a familiar sight in supermarkets, especially around this time of year.

Asparagus is a pretty expensive vegetable in Japan, so you shouldn’t waste a single bit of it. Don’t cut off the thicker ends of the stalks — peel off the outer skins instead, which makes them tender and edible.

Asparagus is great in salads, stir-fries, grilled and more, but here are two recipes that go with plain rice as part of a meal, or even as a drinking appetizer. The first one uses black sesame paste, which you can buy in jars. If you don’t have it, grind up whole roasted sesame seeds into a paste using a suribachi (ceramic mortar with ridges). You can use regular light brown sesame seeds instead of black, but I think the black looks much more dramatic against the bright green of the asparagus.

The second recipe is almost a no-brainer to make. Simply saute blanched asparagus in butter, and season with wasabi and soy sauce.

 

Asparagus with black sesame sauce

Serves 2 to 4

Prep: 10 mins.; cook: 5 mins.

 

• 3 tablespoons nerigoma (ground black sesame paste)

• ½ tablespoon sake

• 2 teaspoons sugar

• 2 teaspoons usukuchi (light) soy sauce

• 300 grams green asparagus (about 6 stalks)

• Salt

• ½ teaspoon whole black sesame seeds

 

1. Peel off the outer skin from the asparagus stalks. Cut into 3-centimeter-long diagonal pieces.

2. Bring a pan of water to a boil and add a little salt. Boil the asparagus stalk pieces first for two minutes, then add the tips or spears and boil for an additional two minutes. Drain well.

3. Combine the ground sesame, sake, sugar and soy sauce into a paste. Combine with the asparagus pieces to coat. Arrange the asparagus pieces on a plate or in a bowl.

4. Take the whole sesame seeds between your thumb and forefinger, and twist to crush them lightly as you scatter them on the asparagus.

 

Asparagus with wasabi butter

Serves 2 to 4

Prep: 10 mins.; cook: 5 mins.

 

• 300 grams green asparagus (about 6 stalks)

• Salt

• 1 tablespoon butter

• ½ tablespoon fresh, grated wasabi or wasabi paste from a tube

• 2 teaspoons usukuchi (light) soy sauce

• A pinch of salt (optional)

 

1. Prep and blanch the asparagus stalks as for the Asparagus with Black Sesame Sauce (above). Drain well. Combine the wasabi and soy sauce in a small bowl.

2. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the asparagus, and saute while turning until very lightly browned. Add the wasabi and soy sauce, toss briefly and take off the heat. Adjust the seasoning with salt, and serve immediately.

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