Culinary Herbs: Too Rare or Too Dear

Back at the beginning of April, Teresa Nielsen Hayden—co-host with her husband of an excellent blog called Making Light—posted about food, specifically a sole in a panicky green sauce that she’d made. Being the foodie that I am, I read through—and added to—the discussion her post generated, which was full of people talking about the herbal dishes they were concocting.

There were many descriptions of sauces that, for lack of the appropriate plant matter, I’ll be unable to attempt until I get back to Canada. My contribution to the discussion consisted mostly of moaning about the difficulty of finding fresh, affordable herbs in Japan. Let’s just say that as my envy grew, so did the pressure in my salivary glands, and it’s a good thing I knew where my towel was.

A few days later I wrote about borscht, where I mentioned our futile attempts to locate fresh dill and said that it would take another whole post to elaborate. Strangely, until now it hadn’t occurred to me to put my comments from Making Light on my own blog. And today Lia mentioned cilantro again. So now, for posterity, is a slightly edited version of what I said there about the food situation here in Kitakyushu.

Regarding all of the wonderful ideas for herbal sauces: I’m looking forward to easy, affordable access to fresh herbs upon my return to the Great White North this summer. I’m currently living in a large coastal city in western Japan, with easy access to seafood. Oddly, a lot of it seems to come from Norway, New Zealand, and/or Alaska. The fugu, however, is local. The proliferation of imported fish might also be that my brain filters out all of the local fish that are labelled purely in Japanese.

Fresh herbs are hard to come by. I’ve never seen fresh dill or cilantro here. The way fresh basil is priced, you’d think it was coca leaf. I was amazed yesterday to find that my local grocery store had changed their packaged spice line to one that included dill seed—the first time I’ve seen it—and have resorted to buying Indian spices and basmati rice from an online store based in Tokyo.

Lest this starts to sound too much like a rant, the sushi is excellent, as is the extensive selection of umeboshi. And edamame as a regulary-stocked item in the grocery store’s freezer section is a dream come true. Now if only I could find someone to teach me how to properly sharpen my yanagi ba.

To sum up: parsley is easy to find, and sometimes affordable. Fresh basil, oregano, chervil, and a few other herbs are available at larger shops, but usually at a premium. And often slightly wilted, in sealed clear plastic trays. No cilantro or dill.

And now, some notes, for those of you who might be scratching your heads about the Japanese culinary vocabulary.

  • Fugu (pronounced FOO-goo, where the first syllable is somewhere between a “foo” and a “hoo”) is also known as pufferfish or blowfish. Here are some random data points based mostly on things I’ve heard. The fish contains some nasty poisons, mostly in specific glands. Japanese chefs must be licensed to prepare fugu, since eating even a tiny bit of a wrongly sliced fish has the potential to make you so completely dead. As opposed to those events that can make you a mere mostly dead. Apparently, there are still low levels of the toxin in the flesh, which make the diner’s lips and tongue a bit numb and tingly. It’s an expensive delicacy which I’ve never tried, though it’s often on the menu at Lia’s staff parties, and Jarrod has had it as part of the lunch they serve him at school. There are some pictures of blowfish in my post about the Shimonoseki Aquarium from last year. Here’s one photo from that series. You’ll have to follow the link for the rest.

    Fugu resting in the sand, Shimonoseki Aquarium

  • Umeboshi (pronounced oo-may-BOH-shee) are Japanese salt-pickled plums. They’re usually pinkish, and are really sour. And delicious. Rather than being plums, they’re actually a kind of apricot. The pink colour comes from shiso leaves, a relative of basil also known as Japanese beefsteak plant. Most people either love or hate umeboshi, and it’s one of the foods that Japanese people are often surprised to find out that foreigners like. Here in Japan it comes in many varieties, as opposed to the one kind that was occasionally stocked at one of Saskatoon’s Asian groceries. All three of us love it. I always get gasps of surprise when I tell my students that umeboshi is one of my favourite Japanese foods.
  • Edamame (pronounced ed-uh-MA-may) are green soybeans in the pod. They’re usually steamed or blanched, and sprinkled with a bit of sea salt. You squeeze or split open the pods, and eat the tender beans inside.
  • A yanagi ba is a long, narrow-bladed single-bevel Japanese cooking knife that is perfectly designed for cutting thin slices of soft fresh raw fish. It’s the weapon of choice of most sushi chefs.

Here’s a brief introduction to Making Light. It’s the blog of Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who are editors at Tor Books in New York. The discussions there are always insightful, ranging from current affairs and politics—mostly American, so I tend to skip them—to Old English to writing, publishing, and agents. And food, gardening, knitting, and neurological disorders, of course. But my summary doesn’t even begin to do it justice. If I felt like cluttering my sidebar with one of those lists of favourite blogs, Making Light would be near the top.

The countdown to fresh herbs? Less than 35 days. I wonder how dill and cilantro would be as a salad, tossed together with a bit of fresh cream. Or pureed with yogurt, as a dip for… well, I’ve got five weeks to figure out what would be good dipped in that. And even though I can’t stand them, I’ll probably buy Lia a bag of ketchup potato chips when we arrive at Vancouver airport.

One thought on “Culinary Herbs: Too Rare or Too Dear

  1. mmmmmm. ketchup chips. mmmmmmmmm.

    mmmmmmm. cilantro. I’m just gonna eat a whole bunch tossed with some lemon juice and olive oil and maybe, maybe a tomato.

    34 days and counting…

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