gaijinfarmer

Organic farming, Japanese recipes


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Rainy season and ume plum liquor

We’re getting ready for a trip back to America in a couple days, and it looks like we might be taking off through a typhoon! The 2nd of the year is on its way north, over Okinawa right now, and it looks like a doozy.

Seasons around here are wacky. A very popular question for foreigners is, “Do you have four seasons in your country?”, and no amount of meteorological education can sway people’s instinctive belief that Japan is the only place in the world that really has four seasons.

Despite this, you could easily argue that the extended rainy season between spring and summer constitutes a fifth season, and the Japanese certainly treat it as such. Temperatures usually drop a little, the humidity skyrockets, and the typhoons start coming.  As they form in the SW Pacific and start to swing northward they’re a regular feature on the news, and as they get closer they bring days of rain if they swing wide, or an increasing gale and downpour if they come our way.  During the rainy season I’ve had leather shoes grow mold and wool sweaters mildew.  They’re in sealed bags this year!

Japanese plums on the tree

The rainy season apparently started 18 days early this year, and despite the fairly cool temperatures we were lucky that the ume plums ripened a bit early too, in time for our trip.  We like to invite ourselves over to our friend’s house who grows the plums and help ourselves to some of the variety called ‘nan-kou’. That’s the variety used for juice or liquor, rather than pickling, and as such they just leave those trees to themselves and harvest what comes–the other trees they spray, process into salted pickles, and sell mostly on the domestic market.  We always make umeshu, Japanese plum liquor.  If you’ve tried the Choya stuff from the store and found it way too sweet, remember that it’s possible to make your own at any sweetness level you like.  We usually use 40-50% of the standard amount of sugar, resulting in a sweet but very tart liquor.  Delicious!

Finding the best ones

Picking is usually a pretty sweaty affair but this year it was a very pleasant family evening out.

In pretty short order we had 12 kilos or so.

Soaking in water for cleaning

Drying

Processing is pretty easy–just remove the stem connecting point with a skewer or knife, soak overnight to wash, lay them out to dry, and set them soaking in 35% alcohol white liquor and some sugar. That’s it! In as little as 3 months you can enjoy it, but you can soak the plums much longer and then even age the product after you remove the plums. We have some 5- and 10-year stuff around here somewhere… not telling where! 😉

Plums soaking in liquor and sugar

In the last picture you can see the color has changed–these have been soaking overnight at this point.  If you look closely you’ll see that the plums are also floating in the middle of the liquid.  The sugar has dissolved and the sugar-heavy liquid has sunk to the bottom and it’s heavier than the plums.  It’ll all normalize in time.

As a final note on plums, these are not really plums.  They’re actually species of apricot but if we started calling them that no one would know what we’re talking about.  So for everyday purposes, they’re plums! I hope you agree that the misnomer isn’t quite as offensive as, say, the Clean Air or Patriot acts.

And we’re offline for a month and a half!  See you all soon enough in the summer heat!

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It's rice planting time in Japan!

The landscape is changing here every day.  Fields that were dry yesterday are flooded today, and the rice planters are out in force from morning to evening.  Some warmer areas of the peninsula are completely planted, and depending on the water supply some neighborhoods are just now setting their seed.

We were a day ahead of schedule and had some pretty short sprouts, but our rice is in and things are looking good.  This year’s been much colder than most: crops in general are two weeks behind average, and lots of people are reporting that their rice sprouts aren’t growing to expectation.  Ours were generally plenty tall, with some strange short spots due to too much dirt over the seeds in the trays or temperature differences inside the tunnels.

To prep for planting the rice, the fields are flooded and then gone over one last time with a tractor to level the ground under the water.  Then pretty much every field bigger than spittin distance wide is planted with a 田植え機 (ta-ue-ki), or rice field planting machine.  Since we don’t have one we contract with a friend who does.

Why don’t we have one?  The big difference between running a field with this machine and doing it with a regular tractor is that with a regular tractor, if you make a mistake you can just go around again and cover your tracks, but if you’re planting rice you only have one go-round.  You really have to know how to cover all the ground without repeating yourself.  So it’s not just a matter of having the machine and the time.

The tractor itself looks like a cross between a bumblebee, and the queen ant if the worker ant were a Segway.  But blue.  Maybe they threw Hello Kitty’s cousin in the vat as an experiment?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It rides on wheels that look like they were lifted from a turn-of-last-century bicycle, so as to disturb as little mud as possible.  The rear consists of a curved feed device for feeding the seed trays toward the planters, which are helped by gravity but controlled by a belt that moves each row of seed trays in steps toward the planting devices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a hopper for distributing moto-goe, or fertilizer, to the base of the planted seedlings, and finally, there are four rows of rotating twin planting forks.  The videos will go a long way to help explaning the whole thing.

Since the rows have to be straight the four planting forks can’t move side to side; thus, the entire feed mechanism moves back and forth, with the belt feeders notching the seed trays down one row with each pass like a manual feed typewriter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Often early and the morning and with little notice, the driver’s wife swoops by our garden to pick up trays in a small truck and then runs off to the first field.  The planting tractor is carried directly to the field in a heavy truck.

At first the seedlings are transferred from the trays to a transport tray; the root system holds the whole thing together at this point, making transport easy.  Then they’re slid onto the feed mechanism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tractor has trays near the driver’s compartment for holding extras; in the case of one of our smallest fields eight trays were loaded into the feeder, with two extra near the driver just in case.  But our driver is really good with his settings, and plants the fields with just a little left over for hand-planting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the tractor’s going, the driver’s wife gets in the field and plants the corners by hand which the tractor can’t do.  When they’re done, we get in the field with our special boots that are held on with some extra loops of rubber.  We check that each planted spot has five or so sprouts in it.  If there are too few we add some since they grow better in bunches.  The mud is really soft so it’s just a matter of tearing off some sprouts from the bunch, squish in the mud, and repeat.  The hard part is keeping your balance while shin-deep in mud.  No one’s fallen over yet…

 


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World record take no ko bamboo shoot?

We went up to the mountain today and bamboo shoots are sticking out just everywhere!  Quite a change from my last posts on recipes for preparation of bamboo shoots, from which a full harvest was a colander-ful, now we can easily gather more than we can carry off the mountain at once and still leave lots of shoots to grow into bamboo.

Like I mentioned, parts of the  mountain are quite steep but the bamboo has no trouble sending up shoots through its root structure any old where, and many of these are perched out on cliffs, leaving me scrambling for footing while digging and cutting them out.  One that I found today looked like one of those but when I started digging it made a turn underground … and kept on going … and going …

By the time I finally uncovered the roots it looked like this–keep in mind that when I saw it, only the top three or four inches were visible above the ground.  The only way I was able to dig it out was that it was on the edge of a steep section that allowed me to peel back the dirt easily.

Hiro said the final result reminded her of a wild boar.  While the two are an order of magnitude apart, I know what she means.  This was an incredible find–so unusual that we called the newspaper.  Hope they print it!  7.2 kg, or almost 16 lbs, as much as a 5-month-old baby!


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Measuring in Japanese 2: field sizes

Yesterday was a long day of prepping the rice for planting. We used our isshou masu a while back to measure our rice seeds, and yesterday we measured those into the trays that we will later load into the robot tractor for planting in the field.

You recall that isshou is 1.8 liters, and that we measured 2 of those into most of our mesh bags for germination. That’s because we line the trays up in sets of 10 for seed spreading, and 2 shou is just the right amount of seed for 10 trays.

We line these trays are with vinyl sheets to prevent the shoots’ roots from growing through the drainage holes, and then put in a layer of sprouting dirt and level it off.  Once the trays are lined up, we use a small hopper that distributes the rice seed, fill in any empty areas by hand, and then use another hopper to put a layer of dirt over the top.  We give each layer a good soak, which makes the whole thing very heavy–I think we could just as easily soak them after we transfer them!

Over in the garden we use the tractor to flatten out a good area of land, then scrape it by hand with a board to make sure it’s as level as possible.  A bottom sheet of vinyl goes down, then the rice trays, a layer of black mulch which you can see on the middle row, and finally a heavy silver vinyl sheet makes a tunnel.  It was quite windy yesterday, so wrestling with all the sheets was a real chore.  We were quite proud and exhausted when we finished.  In all it was about 6 hours of work for me and 4 for my mother-in-law.

So where will this all go?  2 shou of rice seeds is enough for 10 trays, and 20 trays will plant one ‘tan’, which is almost exactly 1,000 square meters.  It’s interesting (or maybe not) that the term ‘tan’ is still in popular use, while 1/10 of a tan is called an ‘are’, (pronounced a-ru) which is the actual metric measurement that the hectare is based on.

The long tunnels each hold 30 trays and the short one has 18.  The long tunnel on the left has a variety called Milky Princess, and the middle and right have Milky Queen. They’re very similar to each other, but unique around here as most people use Koshinohikari or other more popular strains. Everyone loves the rice at the restaurant, so I guess that’s proof enough to keep doing what we’re doing.


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Japanese spring vegetables: wild bamboo shoots

Spring in Japan starts in the depth of winter. At least around where I live, they say that February is the coldest month. It’s a temperate zone so we don’t have to shovel snow off the roofs, but nights hover around freezing or just under, and the days don’t get much warmer than 40 F, if we’re that lucky.

But right in the coldest month, the plum trees bloom and a hazy pink shades hillsides that were brown or a dormant green before. The air is still freezing but the faint smell of the plum blossoms almost fools you into thinking of sunny, warm meadows. No matter how cold it is, we roll down all the windows when we drive by a big orchard in bloom.

The plums are just a tease—it’s cold for weeks longer—but soon the peaches bloom in their vibrant pink, mountain spring vegetables like tsukushi and taranome poke out of the ground, and our strawberry growing friends start talking about the end of the strawberry season. And suddenly take (tah-keh) no ko, bamboo shoots, show up on food trays and in the grocery stores and you think “Is it really that time already?”

But not this year! We haven’t heard a whisper about take no ko, but we went up to the bamboo forest yesterday and dug our first shoots. We beat the Joneses, we beat the grocery stores, and I hope to hear some comment from our customers about the surprising turn of the seasons when we serve it as a side on our lunch sets soon.

If you have a bamboo forest nearby, here’s how to dig your own. First, you need a pickaxe, or better, a takekuwa (bamboo hoe). In English we think of a hoe as something to turn dirt; in Japanese it means pretty much anything attached to a stick at something near 90 degrees that’s obviously not a rake. So the 3-pronged pick is a hoe, the crowbar for bamboo is a hoe, and everything in between is too. Check out this Google search for the range of tools falling under that category.
The takekuwa looks like half of a pickaxe but with a chisel for the head.

Then you’ll need some gloves. If you’re Japanese you’ll probably have ‘guntei’, or the white woven cotton gloves that actually do an OK job against dirt but get soaked by a bad weather report. If you’re smart you will have somehow gotten a pair of LL or XXLL leather gloves to fit your foreigner hands, and these you will use to sweep ground cover from the bamboo forest floor while feeling for bumps that feel like a shoot about to stick out—as they say, if it’s still underground it’s take no ko; if it’s above, it’s already take.   Many will disagree with me here and say that you’re really supposed to shuffle along with your feet to feel for the shoots, and I’d invite those people to try to shuffle up or down our mountain…

When you find the little shoot sticking out, you’ll use your crowbar of incredible power to somehow cut through the ground, which is not so much dirt as it is a carpet of bamboo roots, without hitting or otherwise breaking the shoot. When you get enough ground cleared away, a powerful stroke or four will separate the soft shoot from the incredibly tough roots, and if you’re really skillful, your shoot will come away unbroken. The pictures show that I failed at this most of the time.

Either way it tastes just as good.    Next: how to cook it.