Kyoto farmers make a name selling strangely shaped vegetables

KYOTO - Misshapen vegetables do not generally sell well if at all, but Kyoto farmers have found a way around this by making up names, often after famous places in the city, for unusually shaped products.

A pumpkin that looks like a gourd has been named Shishigatani kabocha, while a daikon that turned into a kabu radish shape is called a Shogoin daikon, and a potato bent over like a prawn rejoices in the name ebi imo.

Kanematsu, a greengrocer in the Nishiki Food Market in central Kyoto, has dealt in vegetables produced in Kyoto, including those in unusual shapes, since its establishment in 1882. In the storefront, the orange colour of the Shishigatani kabocha attracts the attention of shoppers. Next to the pumpkin is ebi imo, remarkable for its shape and stripe pattern similar to that seen on a prawn shell. Also strange among other vegetables is the green, slim Fushimi togarashi, a type of sweet pepper.

As the shop is visited by many tourists, it ships its vegetables across the country at their request.

"These vegetables taste good, and each of them has its own story regarding its shape," said Kinji Ueda, 35, the shop's operator.

At first, the skin of the Shishigatani kabocha had the appearance of a chrysanthemum flower, like ordinary pumpkins. Its seeds were brought by a local resident from the Tsugaru district, in what is now Aomori Prefecture, during the Bunka era (1804-1818). A farmer in the Shishigatani area in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, grew pumpkins from the seeds. After a while, they became gourd-shaped for some mysterious reason.

Shishigatani kabocha contains seeds only in the lower part of the gourd. As the edible part of the pumpkin is about 1.5 times more than that of ordinary pumpkins, it has become popular.

Shogoin daikon underwent a similar metamorphosis.

During the Bunsei era (1818-1830), a local farmer in the Shogoin area in Sakyo Ward received daikon of ordinary length that had been presented to Konkai Komyoji temple nearby from Owari Province, now part of Aichi Prefecture. The farmer collected seeds of some daikon that were large and tasty. But when he started to grow daikon, the shape of the vegetable became short and round like a kabu. It is also claimed the vegetable became round because the layer of the soft soil where it grew was shallow.

The Yomiuri Shimbun Takuji Takahashi Misshapen vegetables are usually regarded as flawed and unmarketable.

However, Daizo Tanaka, 69, an executive of Kyotofu Nogyo Kaigi, a local organisation that protects farmland and encourages farmers and villages, said: "Kyoto farmers' cultural level was high, so they regarded these vegetables as good because their shapes are different from ordinary vegetables. These farmers thought it a business chance and studied how to reproduce them."

Horikawa gobo, a locally grown burdock, is also a product of chance.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a mighty warlord in the 16th century, built the grand Jurakudai building but later destroyed it. After his death, the moat that ran around the building's ruins became a dumping ground in the Edo period (1603-1867), and extraordinarily large burdock grew there.

Taking a lesson from this, local farmers decided to replant their burdock horizontally at the seedling stage to reproduce the massive size.

Local farmers made these efforts partly because high-quality vegetables were needed as a gift to the Imperial court, located in Kyoto at the time, and temples and shrines, as well as ingredients of Kyoto-style kaiseki dishes.

After World War II, Kyoto vegetables declined in the wake of varieties that resisted pests and could be relied on to produce bountiful harvests. Changes in lifestyle also had an effect. People began eating Western dishes more often and regarded Kyoto's massive vegetables as unsuitable for families consisting only of parents and one or two children.

Locally grown vegetables in other regions probably declined for similar reasons. However, Kyoto vegetables, which were on the verge of extinction at one time, revived.

The Kyoto prefectural government took the initiative of selling these vegetables to the Tokyo metropolitan area by branding them as "traditional Kyoto vegetables."

The unusual shapes of the vegetables are regarded as rare, and people in Kyoto have used this effectively to give them extra value. The story is likely to become another chapter in Kyoto's long history.

Refining farming techniques

"We use many types of locally grown vegetables to make our dishes, although we don't necessarily choose Kyoto brands," said Takuji Takahashi, 45, the third-generation operator of the Kinobu Japanese restaurant in Kyoto. "They are all high-quality and have certain characteristics, so they smell and taste good and unusual merely by boiling in dashi stock."

His restaurant was founded in 1935. As his parents were busy working in the restaurant, he was cared for at his maternal grandmother's house in Kyoto's Kamigamo area during summer vacations when he was a primary school student. It was a farming family that grew such vegetables as Kamo nasu eggplants and Kujo negi long green onions. These are among the famous Kyoto brands today.

"As I often helped with the harvesting, I became confident in my ability to choose a good tomato," Takahashi said.

He said Kyoto vegetables have lasted until today due to local people's attachment to elegance and sophistication.

"For example, Shogoin daikon are large, but the taste is delicate and they aren't watery. People in Kyoto really appreciate local farmers' techniques to grow such high-quality vegetables," he said.

Each piece of senmai-zuke, made by thinly slicing and pickling Shogoin turnip, is very large. "We eat it after folding it. We also stew Horikawa gobo after filling the opening in the centre with other ingredients. We do that because it looks sophisticated to diners," he said. "We can make beautiful dishes from tasty vegetables. I will always treasure this.