Growing a Taste of Japan – in Michigan!

Many of our readers are familiar with our East Lansing-based Fiscal Officer, Kitty Douglass-Harris. You’ve probably chatted with her about your financial aid or visa application before going to JCMU. But few know that Kitty is an avid gardener and home cook with a penchant for Japanese cuisine! In this series of blog posts, Kitty gives us the scoop on growing a little bit of Japan in the United States.


The aroma of freshly brewed green tea. The bright, fruity smell of a persimmon being peeled. The sharp, then sweet taste of yuzu or satsuma on a cold winter’s day. All of these scents and flavours bring back fond memories of my time in Japan.

With a new baby on the way, I’ve found myself craving many of the foods that were the staples of my diet when I lived in rural southeastern Japan over a decade ago. My apartment in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, was bordered by rice paddies and surrounded by fruiting plum and persimmon trees. I could literally pick my breakfast on the way to work each morning! I wanted to learn how to cook Japanese foods, so my supervisor suggested I take bridal preparation classes. Though a bit anachronistic, the classes taught me a lot about living (and housekeeping) in Japan. I learned how to properly wash rice (after hours and hours of practice), prepare the dishes, pickles and preserves common to the region, as well as how to care for tatami mats and futon, and how to make homemade traps for the gokiburi (cockroaches)! All vital skills.

Even upon returning to the United States, Japanese food has long been common in my home – one of my 5-year-old son’s favourite foods is soba, and he happily dips his chicken nuggets in soy sauce and ponzu instead of ketchup. I know the owners of my local Asian market by name, and buy as many Japanese vegetables as I can find from a Hmong family that owns a small farm close to my home. But until recently, I never thought to grow Japanese crops in my own garden.

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The idea popped into my head when I had a craving for a food from a very different region of the world: English shelled peas, which were a staple when I was growing up. My grandparents, originally from Wales and England, grew the foods they missed most from the British isles in their backyard in northeast Ohio – those delicious English peas, along with leeks, parsnips, and the herbs that my grandfather referred to as “the Scarborough treatment” (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme). With spring just around the corner here, I thought to myself, “If Grandda could grow Welsh leeks in Ohio, why can’t I grow Japanese turnips in Michigan?”

With this idea in mind and the weather beginning to warm, I have decided to embark on a gardening adventure: I will attempt to grow the Japanese vegetables that I love to eat, and share my (hopefully successful) edible adventure with you through occasional blog posts.

The first step in my gardening journey has been to list the Japanese veggies that I use most often in my cooking: specialty varieties of cucumber (kyuri), eggplant/aubergine (nasu), and round squash (kabocha); familiar standards such as daikon radish and long green onions (negi), as well as some less well-known veggies like komatsuna (a type of long-leafed bitter green, similar to spinach) and my beloved hakurei turnips. I’m also planning to grow tender-leaved Japanese herbs, which are very difficult and expensive to find in stores in the United States, but make a huge difference in authentic cooking. Shiso (Perilla frutescens var. crispa), is a member of the mint family that comes in red and green varieties, and is used commonly in salads, soups, garnishes and as a wrap for rice balls (onigiri). Likewise, mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) is a small-leaved herb similar in flavour to parsley – peppery, bright and delectable.

Mitsuba
Mitsuba

The next step will be source seeds for these varieties, and to plot out their placement in my small backyard garden. Some of the plants will go into pots instead of being sown directly into the ground, so as to hopefully avoid being munched by rabbits and other critters. One question I can’t yet answer: do Michigan deer like Japanese vegetables?

I guess we’ll see! Stay tuned for more in just a few weeks.

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