The Lost Turnips of Mister Goto

May 21, 2017

The original Hebrew article was published at Mako, 26/02/2016 --Photos by Raimondo Cusmano--


The huge snowy hills welcomed us with open arms, and immediately the race for the turnip had begun. In thigh high rubber boots and a double layer of gloves on our hands -one made of wool, the other from Latex - we grabbed the hoes and set off. Ten students, future gastronomes, flock after a short man with a gigantic smile - Mr. Goto, the Turnip Keeper.


Twenty-five years ago, Mister Goto began growing the rare Japanese "Fujisawa” turnips using "Slash and Burn" - an ancient farming method. It is almost never used today, and is considered very unfriendly to the environment. "In the first decade I had no buyers and the other farmers of the area blamed me for the air pollution," he says, "until one day three men came to me: a professor from the agricultural faculty, a local chef and a famous pickle maker. They bought all of my turnips and since then it all changed.” Those three men, had approved what Goto was always so sure of - that the resulting layer of ash from slash and burn provides the newly-cleared land with a nutrient-rich layer to help fertilize crops, and that this controversial method is, after all, sustainable and good for the environment.


Searching for the Snow Turnips


Traditionally in areas where “slash and burn” is used, a cold summer means that you cannot plant rice crops, so many farmers used to plant turnips instead. Turnips only need 45 days of cultivation and can withstand extreme cold temperatures and so act as a nutritional alternative to rice. After being pickled and preserved, the humble turnip can nourish the people throughout the cold winter months. 


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~The Yamabushi monks - a stream of Shinto religion in Japan with distinct Buddhist influences - prepared for us a vegetarian dinner: Tao-kan, Seisei, Nameko mushrooms, Zen-Mai and more. All are indigenous edible plant species that grow only in spring and autumn. In order to have something to eat in the winter, these plants are preserved. During summer the fresh plants are put into barrels filled with salt from the sea of Japan, which removes unwanted bitter poisons and turns them into pickled delicacies. Archaeological excavations tell us that the tradition of salting vegetables in Japan is at least 4,500 years old.


The art of Tsukemono, Japanese preserved vegetables, is a business that in many ways maintains the city of Tsuruoka, located in the Yamagata Prefecture in northwest Japan. It was recently declared as a global gastronomic centre by UNESCO, mainly due to the great effort of the region's residents to preserve ancient agricultural traditions, rare edible plants, and Japanese recipes of hundreds and thousands of years that have almost disappeared from the world.


Zen-Mai at the Yamabushi Shrine 

There are different degrees of fermentation and each has its own purpose: Furuzuke is a long-term conservation method; Asazuke is a light pickling made just to sharpen the flavors of the vegetable and create a more Umami flavor; Kasuzuke is a method that uses the sediments that are left from the production of sake, it is made to cure the turnips In Yamagata; Tosazuke is pickled with salt and bonito fish flakes, and finally Shinzuke, the lightest of all, with products being consumed immediately.


 A Yamabushi Dinner


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~The snow sneaks into our boots and our socks starts to get wet. I use a shovel and manage to penetrate a meter and a half into the snow, until I encounter a moist, frozen ground. My almost paralysed hands will not give up, they dig deep while my knees are burning. Ten minutes later the jubilation began to be heard one by one. We found the hidden turnips, which, in spite of hard conditions of the snow and darkness, somehow managed to grow. The rare turnips that until the last decade nobody cared about. But thanks to Mr. Goto's determination, the investigator, the chef, and the pickle man, they are now worth quite a bit of money.


It's been three days since I came back from Japan, and Mr. Goto's smile is not leaving my mind. Danger of extinction, I thought until recently, is a matter reserved for animals and plants only, and not for trifles like recipes, traditions, or human beings.


 Mister Goto



I learned the following recipe from a small pickle maker from Tsuruoka, who is pickling in a facility that was built in 1798. As for any Japanese magic, it is remarkably accurate, and is presented here just as it was written. Feel free to "cheat" a little if you do not have a scale or an exact calculator.


Serve with rice, or any other side dish that suits your taste.


Tosazuke of asatsuki and yam: Japanese pickles from chives and sweet potatoes

* Use small resealable plastic bags



400g of Japanese chives

400g sweet potato, peeled (300g of end product)

1 teaspoon salt


For the vinegar:

800g of water

40g of rice vinegar


For the marinade (the weight dimensions are correct if the weight of the ingredients is 700g)

Light Soy Sauce (14.8%) - 104g

Rice vinegar (1.3%) - 9g

Sugar (2.3%) - 1 g

Bonito flakes (1.4%) - 10 g 


1. Mix the vinegar ingredients and place in a plastic bag

2. Rinse and peel the potato. Place the potato in the plastic bag with the vinegar water

3. Boil a pot with water. Rinse the chive and remove the roots. Add the salt to the pot and simmer

the greens for about 30-40 seconds in the boiling water. Immediately afterwards, soak in cold water.

4. Transfer the chives to a strainer and press gently. Cut into pieces 4-5 cm long.

5. Mix the chives with the potato and measure the weight (should be about 700 g)

6. In a large bowl, mix the liquid spice ingredients. Place the marinade with the potato and stir.

7. Transfer all the ingredients into a plastic bag and remove the air from the bag. Place the bag in the refrigerator.


You can eat it that day, but it's much better to eat the day after, when the flavors are absorbed enough.


Since I guess you do not happen to have sake sediments in the pantry, here's a more friendly Japanese recipe for pickled turnip, which I learned from my classmate coming from southern Japan:


 Japanese Chive, you can use a local one


Pickled turnip - chrysanthemum style

200 g turnips

10 g of salt


For the liquid seasonings:

4 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons of sugar

Pinch of salt

1/2 teaspoon dry red chili


1. Peel the turnip and cut into thin slices. Massage with salt and place in a bowl, cover with a small dish. Here's a video illustrating the traditional Japanese turnout layout:

2. After 45 minutes, the turnip will secrete all the water. Squeeze the turnip with a sieve and transfer it to a plastic bag with the seasoning liquid. Remove the air from the bag, place it in the refrigerator. 3. Soak for a day and eat.

 Pickled Turnips, Japanese Style


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