I am surveying fields of sundrenched green crops growing beneath cartoon blue skies – when farmer Satoru Urushihara suddenly crouches down next to me. Without a moment’s hesitation, he digs deeply into the soil with his fingers – and, with a sudden tug, a large white bulb materializes in his hand.
“Here it is!” exclaims the farmer, brushing off clumps of earth before placing it ceremoniously into my hands. I’m not quite sure what to make of “it”: the size of a large onion, it is white, spherical, with peaked folds that vaguely resemble an artichoke and - according to Urushihara - it’s delicious cooked in a light tempura batter.
Welcome to the world of edible lily bulbs, known as yurine in Japanese. Unlike the global fame enjoyed by sushi and soba, yurine play a less high profile (but no less important) role in Japanese cuisine. The bulbs are a key ingredient in ceremonial New Year dishes prepared in Japanese homes every January, as well as featuring regularly in traditional Kyoto cuisine. And this corner of Japan is yurine heaven: namely, a small town called Makkari, lying in the shadow of Mount Yotei (dubbed a mini Mount Fuji due to its perfect triangular shape), on Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido.
It is here that I find myself one recent Sunday afternoon. Urushihara – who laughs easily from under his baseball cap - is the fourth generation owner of the 130-year-old farm, which spans 25 hectares and yields crops ranging from carrots and potatoes to daikon radishes to azuki beans. Gesturing towards an expanse of farmland covering less than half a hectare, he says: “This is all yurine. We’ve grown it since I was a child. We fill around 1,000 boxes carrying 5 kilos of yurine a year. Around 98 per cent of Japan’s yurine are made in Hokkaido and of those, more than half are grown in Makkari.”
This is no easy task. As high maintenance as it is low profile, yurine takes six years to grow, with heavy snowfall covering them for up to half of that time. “We move the crops every year to make sure they grow in a round shape”, he says. “We do this by hand to avoid damaging them, as they are very sensitive. It takes a lot of patience to grow yurine.”
Despite the labor intensive efforts, they are sold, on average, for around 500 yen in the supermarket. Bursting into laughter, the farmer adds: “We don’t grow these for the money. It’s bunka - Japanese culture. They are an important part of traditional Japanese washoku cuisine. It’s important to keep the culture of eating yurine alive.” They are also good for you: the bulbs are rich in minerals and iron, which make them popular during pregnancy, and are also believed to help insomnia.
The following day, in the cosily elegant confines of Restaurant Molière, in Hokkaido’s main city Sapporo, I present to the somewhat bemused chef Tomoyuki Kon my
freshly harvested newspaper wrapped yurine. A short while later, waiters brings a silver tray with bowls of yurine, cooked simply in a deliciously frothy sauce of vegetable bouillon, cream, milk and butter.
It’s a dramatic transformation from farm to restaurant – and offers a (tasty) clue as to why yurine will always hold a special culinary spot in the heart of Japanese food-lovers.