Napa or Na leafy greens are cultivated leaf vegetables that fulfill similar roles to the likes of lettuce, spinach, cabbage, chard, kale, chicory and so forth in Western kitchens. They have similar, or even superior, health-giving qualities to their Western cousins.
In Japanese cuisine they are primarily used in o-hitashi where they are parboiled, then dipped in cold water to retain colour, and then covered with dashi stock and shoyu. They are also commonly used in nabemono hotpot dishes, stir-fried as itamemono, in aemono and suimono soups.
The edible chrysanthemum leaf shungiku or kikuna actually originated in Europe. Essentially a spring vegetable, though it is now available year-round, it is commonly used with sukiyaki, it is strong tasting and should be boiled once and soaked in cold water before use, except in nabemono. Chiba, Osaka, Ibaragi, Gunma and Fukuoka are the main producers.
Mizuna aka Kyo-na, pot herb mustard, mibuna a variety of wild mustard and itona are all furry-leafed greens used in soups, aemono, and nabemono. They lose their taste if overheated. Kuresson water cress is generally used as a garnish and to add a peppery bite to soups and salads. Occasionally it is even used as a topping for nigirizushi, as pictured here at the fabulous Sushidokoro Man in Kyoto.
Strictly speaking a sansai plant, but most commonly cultivated, mitsuba trefoil or Japanese wild chervil is found in Japan and China. It grows in damp places in early spring and is often used as a topping for misoshiru miso soup, or in the steamed savoury-custard dish, chawan-mushi.
Hakusai Chinese cabbage, literally the ‘white vegetable’ is the big daddy of Japan’s leafy greens, and is used much as cabbage in the west. It is a winter vegetable, best eaten between November and February. Added fresh from the field to a simple but good dashi stock with tofu and in-season tara cod, it forms the base of a superb taranabe cod hotpot. Dip cod and hakusai into a ponzu citrus sauce. Absolutely brilliant. It’s also full of vitamin C.
Komatsuna mustard spinach used in nabemono, o-hitashi, and even in fried itamemono. It gets its name from Komatsugawa, Tokyo, where it was originally harvested in the early Edo period. Mostly picked in winter, it is used in o-zoni at Kanto’s New Year celebrations. It is primarily cultivated in Saitama, Tokyo, Chiba and Kanagawa.
Komatsuna is also a common ingredient in that very 21st century concoction – the green smoothie. With some strong justification. Its iron content is much higher than that of spinach, and it’s full of calcium making it popular on the lactose-intolerant circuit. When combined in dishes with vitamin D-rich mushrooms, it’s calcium boosting qualities are even more greatly enhanced.