Japanese cucumbers always remind me of when I first began working with Japanese farmers. There were several new and exciting angles to the relationship that were different than my North American experience. Japanese farming tends to be operated on a much smaller scale than what one sees in countries with larger land masses. The scarcity of land and space has resulted in a very efficient way of organizing farm plots. Adaptation to the mountain and valley terrain has also resulted in a unique step-field system in which rectangular plots of land are carved into the mountainside giving the appearance of steps. Watering is achieved through a gravity controlled levy system whereby rainfall is captured near the top of the mountain then directed downward to each successive step-field. Within each farm plot or step the soil is arranged in mounded rows to allow the water to channel and efficiently reach the crop roots while reducing waste through evaporation.
The Japanese cucumber, called “Kyuri” (cüe-lee), is a member of the Cucuritaceae family, one of the most important food plant families that includes melons, gourds, squash and pumpkin. Japanese cucumbers are actually the fruit of a climbing plant although they more commonly thought of as a vegetable. Containing 96 percent water, in summer their flesh can measure up to 20 degrees cooler than their skin, a gained that allows it to survive in hot climates where other vegetables wilt. Japanese cucumbers are but one of countless varieties of burpless cucumbers – they could well be the best though. Japanese Kyuri are much skinnier than European or American cucumbers. They also have much smaller seeds and thinner skin which gives it a much more subtle and highly desired refinement in texture.
They can be equally good in pickling with salt or vinegar. The Japanese Kyuri has several advantages over common cucumbers. Its thin skin and absence of developed seeds are the most obvious. Even better – Kyuri are never bitter and seem sweeter than other types. The average harvested length is about 10 cm (4 inches) while the cucumber is still young. Its skin is colored forest green and smooth with distinctly sharp bumps running its length. Perhaps one of its best characteristics is its superior inner flesh that is all at once crisp, crunchy, succulent and tender. Consumed the same day it is picked reveals flavors that are surprisingly bright, effervescent and melon-like.
HISTORY OF JAPANESE CUCUMBER
Cucumbers are modern descendents of the wild cucumber, Cucumis hardwickii, which was native to the foothill regions of the Himalayas. The first cultivated varieties evolved out of ancient Egypt growing across the Fertile Crescent. Early Japanese cucumber varieties developed from cultivated varieties imported from China an often preserved through pickling to sustain villages throughout the year. Modern versions of Kyuri have been developed and bred for open field cropping and greenhouse growing.
In Japan the “Shogoin Kyuri” (cucumber) is the most sought after cucumber by chefs. Sushi chefs prefer the “micro” version with its tiny flower still attached to serve as a garnish for freshly sliced raw fish. Medium size versions inevitably find their way into kaiseki courses in the summer season or can be pickled whole. Large versions are usually brined or cured and turned into the highly sought-after pickles called tsukemono (漬物)
“Kyo-yasai” is a term describing the varieties of vegetables created through selective breeding over the centuries that continue to be produced using traditional methods in Kyoto Prefecture. Currently about 41 varieties of vegetables qualify to be called ‘Kyo no Dento Yasai’, certified by the Kyoto Prefectural Government.
Kyo-yasai have not undergone selective breeding to improve appearance or yield and can be thought of similarly to the Heirloom varieties that are currently finding favor amongst connoisseurs in Europe and North America. Unsurprisingly many of these varieties are more nutritious than high yielding vegetables utilized in much of modern farming today.
If visiting Japan, Kyo-yasai can easily be found in the summer at markets like the Nishiki Market in various states of maturity. Nishiki Market is a shopping street which is located in the center of Kyoto City where many long-established stores and specialty stores that sell ultra-fresh foods to restaurants in the early morning and to the public throughout the day.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF JAPANESE CUCUMBER
Assessing cucumbers for healthy benefits reveals they are low in saturated fat, calories, cholesterol and sodium. They are also a good source of vitamin A, pantothenic acid, magnesium, phosphorus and manganese. Even better is the fact they are a very good source of Vitamin C, Vitamin K and Potassium. Cucumbers also contain an anti-inflammatory flavonol called fisetin that has been shown to play an important role in maintaining a brain health – benefits which include improving memory as well as protecting nerve cells as one ages. Polyphenols, called lignans, offer women help to lower the risk of breast, uterine, ovarian, and prostate cancers.
Cucumbers contain multiple B vitamins, including vitamin B1, vitamin B5, and vitamin B7 (biotin). B vitamins are known to help ease feelings of anxiety and buffer some of the damaging effects of stress. Cucumbers can play a healthy role in a balanced diet because they are very low in calories yet make a filling snack. Soluble fiber in cucumbers dissolves into a gel-like texture in the stomach and helps to slow down digestion which has the effect of making one feel full.
HOW TO BUY JAPANESE CUCUMBER
Choose cucumbers that are glossy, firm and not too soft. Cucumbers should be chosen according to their vibrancy and firmness. When shopping at a store look for cucumbers that are devoid of any spots, cuts or brown patches on the skin. Cucmbers with spots and bruises tend to spoil quickly and are a sure sign that they are past their prime.
HOW TO STORE JAPANESE CUCUMBER
Cucumbers should be kept refrigerated in a humidity controlled atmosphere. Keeping in a dry environment will cause the cucumbers to wilt and lose their juicy texture. They should be eaten as soon as possible after picking. Note that they will lose their fragrance and sweetness over time when kept in storage. If possible buy directly from a farm or at a farmer’s market.
HOW TO PREPARE JAPANESE CUCUMBER
Shogoin Cucumbers have prickly skin that needs to be removed. The easiest way to accomplish this is to lightly scrub the skin under cold running water with a brush such as a tawashi. Keep the pressure light so as not to damage the smooth green skin. The next step is optional but it will create a better texture – with the blade of a knife score the skin across the surface diagonally working from one end to the other and then repeating in the opposite direction. A Santoku knife is ideal for this due to its even balance and deeper blade which allows the cook to effortlessly control the pressure on the blade. Start slow and build your rhythm to keep an even and consistent depth and width between cut lines. Once cut in one direction repeat in the opposite direction so that a “cross hatch” pattern is left in the skin. The effect on the texture is to create a subtle complexity with the added benefit of allowing salt or vinegar to penetrate more easily and evenly. With some practice there is a rhythmic pleasure in this method – like a pianist flowing to the rhythm of the metronome.
COOKING WITH JAPANESE CUCUMBER
Tsukemono first appeared far back in Japanese history before refrigeration was invented and at a time when pickling was used to preserve food. Perfection of this technique has resulted in some traditionally prepared types of pickles that can be kept for long periods of time. The different methods used to make tsukemono range from simple salt or vinegar brining to more complicated processes involving cultured molds and careful fermentation.
Many types of vegetables and even some fruitscan used to make tsukemono including, but not limited to, Japanese daikon, cucumber, eggplant, carrot, cabbage, water lily root, ginger, shallots and plums (called ume). Sometimes seaweed like wakame or spices are added to pickling blends to improve flavor.