Konsai root vegetables such as daikon giant radish feature large in everyday cooking, especially in rural communities, in restaurants of all types and price ranges, and in Shojin-ryori Buddhist vegetarian-vegan temple cuisine. They also have much older folkloric associations with sexuality, the kon element of the phrase implying ‘root’ of life, and by extension, ones naughty bits, especially the male. In the cities you’ll find this reference is long forgotten.
The daikon Japanese radish or giant white radish is an important, versatile daily vegetable. It is grated finely as an addition to many soba buckwheat noodle dishes, as it is said to help with the digestion. Grated and mixed with baby sardines, it produce the splendid dish jako-oroshi, an izakaya or shokudo canteen favourite, as well as an item on many a high-class ryotei upscale kaiseki ryori menu.
Giant radish grated with taka-no-tsume red-hot peppers turns pink, and is known as momiji-oroshi, ‘maple-leaf grated daikon’. It is served with shoyu alongside nabemono as a dipping condiment.
One of the great characteristics of the Japanese radish is that it soaks up the juices in which it is cooked. Thus it is a match made in heaven with great dashi, a fact of which the ancient Zen chefs were undoubtedly keenly aware. Daikon thus goes perfectly with nimono, oden hotchpotch and a variety of soups. When slowly simmered with buri yellowtail, in December and January when that fish is at its best, it makes the dish buridaikon-ni. When done with care and good dashi it is sublime.
Japanese radish is also pickled, most notably in the Kyoto speciality called takuanzuke, a crunchy yellow nuka-pickle named after the Buddhist monk who initially created it. Takuan, to give it its common name, is that yellow half moon-shaped pickle that accompanies white rice in just about every teishoku set menu you encounter.
Daikon also has a key role in the hierarchy of a traditional Japanese professional kitchen. Apprentice chefs must learn how to peel an entire daikon in one single unbroken strip, so as to master knife technique, and patience. Try it. It’s fiendishly difficult. Once the apprentice has succeeded, he is ready to start moving up the kitchen pecking order.
Incidentally, in that process, nothing is wasted. Once the daikon is peeled, the outer skin is finely sliced to serve as the white background upon which sashimi will rest. The Japanese radish is one of the ‘seven herbs of spring’ used in nanakusa-gayu a traditional healthy rice porridge, often given away for free at Buddhist temples in spring.
Tokyo’s Nerima daikon, Kyoto’s Shogoin daikon and Kanazawa’s Utsuki Gensuke daikon are all regional variations of note. Also, watch out for the wee feller that is karami daikon. It’s small, innocuous looking, but packs an eye-wateringly strong spice element. See the lotus root section for something similar.
Daikon ashi, literally 'daikon legs' is the phrase used to describe someone whose lower limbs are rather less than svelte. Be carefull who you say it to!