Out of the Box
This episode is supported by JapanCulture•NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
We’re about halfway through Season 1 of The Big Root, and we want your feedback! Please fill out the Listener Survey.
Susan and Toshiki explore Japanese cuisine at home by opening two cardboard boxes. From Kokoro Care Packages, we enjoy the August Nourishing Essentials Care Package, and we celebrate summer preparing and eating hiyashi chuka, seaweed salad topped with unagi furikake, and a sweet corn rice porridge. Co-founders Lillian Hanako Rowlatt and Aki Sugiyama started Kokoro Care Packages in December 2018 on the mission to spread the health and wellness of Japanese food to people outside of Japan. Reading a pamphlet that translates the Japanese instructions into English and learning about the creators of these products through “Producer Spotlights” on the Kokoro Care Packages website, we appreciate authentic ingredients delivered directly from Japan. Susan pours a sparkling sake cocktail using the Asaya Vinegar 5 Year Aged Red Wine Vinegar from Yamanashi Prefecture, and Toshiki presents a blueberry amazake sorbet (and desperately shapes the slushy dessert into the likeness of the photo in the Kokoro pamphlet).
The ingredients in the Nourishing Care Package shined even brighter because of the fresh produce that we ordered from Suzuki Farm in Delaware. In the yasai value set, we find cabbage, cucumber, bell peppers, edamame, shishito peppers, bitter melons, and green onion. Suzuki Farm was founded by Ken Suzuki in 1983 who wanted to bring traditional Japanese fruits and vegetables to the East Coast of the United States. The farm supplies grocery stores (like Katagiri, Dainobu, and Sunrise Mart), restaurants, and residents of New York, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. With a la carte options from Suzuki Farm, we also ordered two photogenic daikon radishes that excited us and Toshiki’s dog Jayden.
Read Toshiki’s Kokoro Care Packages community blog post “Find Someone Who Looks at You the Way Toshiki Looks at Blueberry Amazake Sorbet”.
He Sells Shiso by the Seashore by Walter Nicholls (The Washington Post)
Visit Suzuki Farm for Organic Japanese Ingredients by David S-C (2010 JapanTown Festival)
13 Best Japanese Candy Subscription Boxes by Adam Bryan (Urban Tastebud)
This episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige and transcribed by Susan McCormac. Thanks to Lillian Rowlatt and Aki Sugiyama for the complimentary Kokoro Care Package. Thanks to Ken Suzuki for speaking to us about Suzuki Farm.
Susan McCormac: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
Toshiki Nakashige: Before the episode begins, Susan and I want your feedback, so we created a listener survey. We want information about you, how you listen to the podcast, which episodes you’ve liked, and what subjects you’d like us to focus on. Please go to thebigrootpodcast.com/survey or click the link in the episode description. Susan will tell you more about the survey at the end of the episode, but again, thebigrootpodcast.com/survey. Enjoy listening to the episode!
SM: Welcome to The Big Root.
TN: A podcast about everywhere Japaneseness. My name is Toshiki Nakashige.
SM: I’m Susan McCormac.
SM: I love Japanese food, but if you told me a year ago that I would be so ecstatic to open up a cardboard box to find giant daikon with the stem and leaves still attached, I would have told you that you were crazy.
SM: It’s big, right?
TN: Yes, it’s big. Jayden wants the Big Root. Oh my gosh, this is what I wanted!
SM: Yes! I didn’t realize because I saw the bottom part; I did realize that it was attached, still attached. Oh my god, that is so gorgeous.
TN: This is, this is great. This will be a perfect photo op.
SM: I never see daikon like that.
TN: I mean, this is also how you know this is straight from a farm.
SM: Well, here we are. Toshiki and I ordered a yasai, or vegetable, set value box from Suzuki Farm, which included a head of cabbage, three cucumbers, six Japanese eggplants, six green bell peppers, a bag of edamame, a bag of shishito peppers, two goya or bitter melons, and two Tokyo negi or Japanese long onions. On their website you can also order vegetables a la carte, so we added two daikon radishes to our delivery.
New York is a wonderful place to explore different Japanese restaurants, but sometimes, it’s nice to have Japanese food brought right to your doorstep. After Toshiki took a selfie with the daikon, we also opened another cardboard box, but this one was labeled Kokoro Care Packages.
TN: One of the things that Kokoro does is actually translates a lot of their instructions like to how to cook, so in the Kokoro Care Package there’s this little kind of a pamphlet
SM: It’s beautifully done.
TN: Yeah, I like it.
SM: Kokoro Care Packages is a company based in Los Angeles and Tokyo that delivers traditional and healthful ingredients from Japan to different countries worldwide, and they translate instructions and recipes into English. As I remove the shells from a pound of raw shrimp, Toshiki reads the pamphlet inside the August’s Nourishing Essentials Care Package.
TN: ...every month it’s usually seasonal, but every month they have a different theme and this theme, August theme, was “Summer Celebration.” And it has here, “Summer is a festive time in Japan. You can celebrate at one of the many natsu matsuri, or summer festivals; put on a yukata, a casual, light kimono worn in the summer; see some beautiful hanabi, or fireworks; and our favorite, enjoy all of the seasonal and traditional summer foods. This month we’re bringing you some of our favorite summer foods from Japan.”
SM: Inside the Kokoro Care Package were six items.
TN: They have a list of all the contents, so in this box there’s the “Soba Which Wants to Become Hiyashi Chuka;” seaweed salad that’s kind of in a package, and you just need to rinse and drain that. And so we need a—I guess I also need a sieve for the soba.
SM: For the soba, yeah.
TN: Then we have the blueberry amazake, that I have frozen as a sorbet. Oh they have a nice picture of it. And the rice corn porridge. So we just need to boil it—oh just add boiling water. And just 60 seconds, wow.
SM: There was also an aged red wine vinegar and four packets of furikake, or seasoning that’s typically put on rice. We’ll talk more in detail about each product as we explore both traditional and nontraditional ways of preparing a Japanese meal with them.
Hiyashi chuka is a cold noodle dish that’s usually served with egg noodles like ramen, but as the name “Izumo soba that wants to be hiyashi chuka” implies, we prepared our summertime entree with soba. Izumo soba is a type of buckwheat noodle from Shimane Prefecture, and the company Honda Shoten is known for using traditional raw soba-making methods to create buckwheat flour free of additives. Unlike dried soba noodles you find at the supermarket, this soba was soft. And we had a special guest in the kitchen.
TN: For the hiyashi chuka, we’re going to kind of stick to the more towards a traditional Japanese way of preparing it. So, hiyashi chuka in itself it means, it literally means “chilled Chinese.” And so it’s kind of a cold Chinese noodle dish that is adapted into Japanese cuisine. But usually. That’s my dog, Jayden, and he ate a shishito pepper, so we’ll see how that happens!
SM: He’s still happy, though! So that’s his tail hitting every surface of the kitchen.
TN: He has “happy tail,” and sometimes his tail bleeds.
SM: Oh no!
SM: Traditionally hiyashi chuka is served with slices of shrimp, ham, chicken, or crab, along with lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and a vinegar soy dressing. We prepared our version of hiyashi chuka with shrimp and cherry tomatoes from Whole Foods. We also added slices of cucumber, or kyuri, and green onion, or negi, from Suzuki Farm.
SM: So because they ship around the world...
SM: We also prepared the seaweed salad mix from Konbumura. The mix consisted of five types of sea vegetables found in the waters of Hokkaido Prefecture: Funori seaweed, Dulse seaweed, Wakame seaweed, Gagome Kelp, and Japanese Kelp.
TN: …soaked for ten minutes in water. And then this is the seaweed salad, so I’m just going to go ahead and just start serving this.
SM: The seaweed came dried, and while we waited for it to come back to life soaking in water, we shredded the Suzuki Farm cabbage and sliced the bell peppers. We wanted to combine the seaweed mix with fresh vegetables to make a heartier salad. As I finished shelling the shrimp and started deveining them, Toshiki was chopping the vegetables. As you’ll hear, we still couldn’t get over the daikon.
SM: I love that, like you had mentioned earlier that you can tell we got this from a farm. You know?
TN: No, because like, even the daikon, so the daikon you know have the stems on them? And like, when we were doing The Big Root photo shoot we wanted to I was looking I like,looked at four different grocery stores for the daikon with the stems on it, but none of them had it so I was so ecstatic to see it.
SM: We can redo the photo shoot now. Like just order from Suzuki Farms before we take more pictures. We could do that, you know, like update for the beginning of next year.
TN: Yeah. Oh my gosh, this negi look so good!
SM: It smells amazing, too.
TN: Do you want to keep the green part? I was just going to throw this part away.
SM: Oh, let’s keep the green part.
TN: You don’t want the root, right?
SM: No, I don’t want the root. You did a nice job of slicing that in a beautiful angle, too.
TN: Thank you. My knife’s not super-sharp, so it’s kind of still jagged, but I like the.
SM: What would your sushi chef dad say about you having dull knives?
TN: Well, he’d be like, “Good, don’t spend money on knives when you’re this poor.”
SM: Furikake is a common seasoning that’s usually sprinkled on top of rice, and the packets that came in the care package were from the producer Tamakiya, which is more than 200 years old. The two flavors of furikake were unagi, or eel, and ayu, or sweetfish, and because these fish are seasonal, the available only in the summer. For our meal, we didn’t include a staple of Japanese cuisine—rice—but as suggested in the Kokoro instructions, we used our unagi furikake to season another dish.
TN: more creative ways, so we’re going to put this on the salad, seaweed salad, too.
SM: We thought that the furikake would be a nice touch of saltiness to our salad.
SM: And it smells fantastic.
TN: It smells so good.
SM: It really does. And it looks beautiful, too.
TN: Okay, so, oh I need to rinse this.
SM: Toshiki drained and ran cold water over the cooked soba, and after I deveined the shrimp, I was excited to prepare our evening’s beverage!
The product in the August Nourishing Essentials Care Package that we were most excited about was the red wine vinegar, and if you’re wondering whether red wine vinegar traditionally embodies Japaneseness, it doesn’t really. I certainly didn’t consider it to be an obvious Japanese ingredient, but as we read more about the vinegar that was included in the care package, we quickly understood the Japaneseness inside.
SM: Shall I open this. Wooh, it’s pretty strong. Smell.
SM: The 5 Year Aged Red Wine Vinegar was produced by Asaya Vinegar in Yamanashi Prefecture, and it embodies the shokunin or craftsmanship culture of Japan. Although it can be used to flavor meats and salads, we used it to create a unique sparkling cocktail. I poured the ingredients into wine glasses so that we could appreciate the bubbles and the hint of color.
I didn’t use any measuring tools, but I combined about 2 parts sparkling water, 1 part sake...
SM: So it’s just a splash?
SM: And a little bit more than a splash of the red wine vinegar.
SM: Woo, it’s making it bubbly. Definitely not a bartender.
TN: Oh, you can add some yuzu.
SM: And a splash of yuzu concentrate.
SM: Yeah, it needs something. The yuzu really does, yeah.
TN: Add to it? Oh, it smells…
SM: It smells nice.
TN: With the yuzu and the red wine vinegar, oh my gosh. Oh yeah, that looks like a really beautiful color.
SM: Yeah: Here, try it and see if it’s balanced.
SM: The drink was a mixture of dry and acidic, and the bubbles were refreshing. I tried the red wine vinegar by itself too, and compared to what I expected, the vinegar was more mellow, I think because of the aged quality.
SM: I would not have thought of this, to put a red wine vinegar into a cocktail.
SM: With cocktail in hand, I walked around the kitchen to appreciate how our Japanese meal was coming together so nicely, and by walking around, I mean stepping over Jayden who occupied half of Toshiki’s moderately sized kitchen by Manhattan standards. Toshiki had finished chopping all the vegetables with his dull knife, and he also drained the seaweed salad that appeared to come back to life after a 10-minute soak.
SM: The seaweed is really nice. We’ve got red colors, very vibrant green, very dark green.
SM: Japanese meals often include multiple dishes that require different methods of preparation, and it’s difficult to get the perfect timing down. However, we managed to do all right. After I added boiling water to the sweet corn rice porridge from Kodama Ikiiki, we moved on to pan frying our shrimp in sesame oil.
SM: Is all of this going to fit?
TN: I don’t think all of it is going to fit.
SM: In the spirit of respecting the purity of the Japanese ingredients, we didn’t want to season the shrimp too much. So with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and a splash of cooking sake, our shrimp were sizzling.
TN: Okay, so I’m going to just dress this.
SM: We plated the hiyashi chuka with the slices of cucumbers and negi, and the reds and oranges of the tomatoes and shrimp gave pops of color. The vinegar soy dressing gave off an incredible aroma.
SM: Jayden is hoping that you drop something.
TN: And then the shrimp kind of in the middle?
TN: And then the daikon?
SM: Toshiki grated daikon—his favorite way to prepare the big root—and garnished the soba. We placed the seaweed salad on a bed of shredded cabbage and added sliced bell peppers and grated daikon. We sprinkled the unagi furikake.
TN: Oh my gosh.
SM: Amazing smell.
SM: I wouldn’t say that Toshiki or I have a knack for preparing Instagram-worthy home cooked meals, and thank goodness this is a podcast and not on video because we had cooking utensils scattered all around his kitchen. Nevertheless, Toshiki’s plain white plates and bowls from grad school wouldn’t do justice to the beautiful Kokoro and Suzuki ingredients, so I brought over some of my Japanese urushi lacquerware dishes and ceramic bowls to show off our culinary creations.
SM: I’m going to put this in here and then that in this plate.
SM: We set the table in Toshiki’s living room. In true New York fashion, his dining table actually doubles as our podcast recording studio, so we moved aside our recording equipment and carefully laid out our spread. You can find some photos of the meal at thebigrootpodcast.com. We were ready to dig in!
TN: I think even the shrimp by itself tastes good.
SM: Mmm hmm.
SM: But before we feast and share more about Kokoro Care Packages and Suzuki Farm, let’s take a break!
SM: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
Because Japan is an archipelago, much of the lifestyle revolves around the sea, but sea life is global. Japaneseness is global. Running JapanCulture-NYC has afforded me many opportunities to experience special Japanese-related activities. Recently I attended an expo run by True World Foods, a wholesale seafood distribution company based in the US that supplies fresh seafood and other products to markets and restaurants around the world. At the second annual True World Foods Expo in Manhattan earlier in September, I learned a great deal about fish and other creatures of the sea from experts who fish, farm, and distribute them. I had the opportunity to taste samples of incredibly fresh seafood from Japan and other parts of the world. But my most important takeaway wasn’t about a specific Japanese fish but about international sustainability. True World Foods is working with organizations such as the Marine Stewardship Council on fishing standards so that both producers and consumers alike can continue to enjoy the bounty of the sea for many years to come. While I sampled different foods, I learned that the sea squirt or hoya in Japanese looks like a pomegranate but tastes more like squid. You can read more about my experience at the True World Foods Expo 2019 on JCNYC.
Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
SM: Today we don’t have an interview guest, but Toshiki and I had the opportunity to indulge in delicious Japanese food by featuring two businesses that bring Japaneseness to your doorstep: Kokoro Care Packages and Suzuki Farm. Before the break, we combined the ingredients from boxes we received from Japan and from Delaware to create three dishes.
A “chilled Chinese” hiyashi chuka made of soba, shrimp, tomatoes, cucumbers, negi, and grated daikon with a vinegar soy dressing.
A salad made up of mixed seaweed with shredded cabbage, sliced bell peppers, and grated daikon topped with unagi furikake.
And a sweet corn rice porridge, which we were almost tempted to garnish with grated daikon as well.
I also concocted a beautiful cocktail made with red wine vinegar, yuzu concentrate, sparkling water, and sake.
After almost two hours of preparation, we were hungry. Itadakimasu!
In the comfort of our own recording studio, we ignored Japanese customs of politeness and talked with our mouths full. As we nourish ourselves with fresh and healthful ingredients, Toshiki talks about how this episode came together in the first place.
TN: …Lillian Rowlatt. So, Lillian is actually based in LA, and she, I guess she was just like searching for different kind of like Japanese, you know, Japanese-interest type podcasts, blogs, I think she also contacted you independently of the podcast, but yeah, she contacted us in like July, and you know, like offering is there a way we can possibly collaborate. And you know, I had a conversation with her, and I was like, you know, it would be really cool to feature this type of company. You know, our tag line is “Everywhere Japaneseness,” and I thought like Kokoro Care Package is kind of a perfect example of that just because they ship worldwide—actually, they ship to more than 35 countries.
SM: That’s amazing. What a reach!
TN: Yeah, yeah. And you know, she was saying that—so, I had a phone call with her—and their customers range from, you know, Japanese nationals who live abroad from Japan who like miss, you know, traditional Japanese ingredients to you know, Japanese Americans, Japanese you know, Nikkei people outside of Japan—like us—and also non-Japanese who are just interested in Japanese culture. And yeah, Lillian’s story is pretty interesting. She grew up in Toronto, and she talks about how you know, Toronto is a really multi-cultural city—and she even says that she thinks it’s more multi-cultural than New York even, and I think that was pretty interesting.
SM: That’s quite the statement.
TN: But yeah, so she’s mixed race. Her mom’s Japanese, you know, born and raised in Japan, and her father is Caucasian, and so she grew up in Canada. The way that she described her upbringing is that she was always familiar with Japanese culture, but wasn’t necessarily immersed in it just because she lived in Canada. But she, after college she went to the JET Program—the Japanese English teaching program—as a you know, English teacher in Niigata Prefecture, actually. And oh, her mom I think is from Osaka, and she was saying that like, “Oh, what are you going to do in Niigata?” And Lillian was actually saying that like, I think when you’re kind of in a more rural area, people appreciate culture a little bit more, like Japanese culture just because in Osaka it’s more of a cosmopolitan city, so she was really grateful to have that experience in Niigata.
SM: Kokoro Care Packages was founded by Lillian Rowlatt and Aki Sugiyama in December 2018. Customers can subscribe to their care packages to receive a box either once a month or once every three months, and there’s a one-time gift option as well. In each care package are seasonal ingredients shipped directly from Japan. Lillian is based in Los Angeles, and when she reached out to us, we immediately thought about how their business model encapsulates everywhere Japaneseness.
TN: I kind of asked, like, oh, what’s like the furthest, you know—farthest country from Japan, or you know, furthest in culture, and she said Mauritius, actually, which is like an island in the Indian Ocean, right? It’s an African country. So, I thought that was pretty cool, and that really embodies Everywhere Japaneseness.
TN: But yeah, so the company was founded in December of last year, December 2018, on the mission to serve or provide Japanese ingredients that were free of additives, that were more natural, because I think they found out a lot of the Japanese products sold in America—and specifically she recalled kind of walking in the supermarket aisles—Japanese supermarket aisles—with Aki, her co-founder, was that a lot of the Japanese food was like packaged and like preservatives. And she was like, “You know, like Japanese food in Japan is like so much more about like, just like natural ingredients. And so that was the kind of the motivation, and obviously there are other kind of like package, subscription package companies that you can order, you know, Japanese snacks, but this is a totally different concept, I think.
SM: Based on what I read in an article about Japanese snack subscription boxes, there are about 13 companies, at least as of 2016, from which you can order Japanese candy. I’ve tried one of them before, and I will say that these types of boxes have a kawaii aesthetic and probably cater more to younger fans of Japanese pop culture. There are options for more artisanal snacks, which I personally would prefer, but I don’t think health and wellness are the focus of these snack-specific boxes.
With that said, Kokoro does provide snacks and sweet foods too, but they come in the form of more traditional products that you can’t easily find in stores. They strive to provide treats that don’t have any added sugar. For example, the August Care Package included a blueberry-flavored, alcohol-free sweet sake called amazake from SEESCORE, and we’ll enjoy that treat as a sorbet after dinner.
Because products are shipped from Japan, the ingredients aren’t fresh, like from a farm, but they’re packaged without artificial preservatives and additives that might make them unhealthy. I was curious about how long the items kept, and the expiration date listed on the soba was January 2020. So although it’s not going to go bad right away, you get to enjoy some sense of authenticity of the season during that season.
TN: We’re eating chilled soba, we’re eating seaweed salad that, you know, it is packaged, like obviously they have to ship it here from Japan, and but you know, we prepared it, and it tastes incredible.
SM: Yeah, I will say that the soba tastes like we are at a restaurant and someone just made it by hand. It has, it has—and I’m not exaggerating—it has a freshness to it that actually surprised me when I first took a bite. I didn’t think that, that it would taste this fresh. The seaweed, I’m actually, I’m impressed by the seaweed salad, too, because that came in an aluminum foil-type package. As dried, but it really is springy and—springy not the season, springy as in like the texture. So what else does Lillian do? Like, how, what brought her, what took her to LA from Canada, like after the JET Program?
TN: Right, yeah. So I mentioned that she went to JET. So she said that she had spent eight years in finance, actually, and she worked on the Japan branch of her company, and so she actually took a lot of business trips to Japan, and so. Actually a mutual friend had introduced her to her now co-founder, Aki Sugiyama, and who’s actually a bodybuilder, apparently. Isn’t that crazy?
SM: Oh wow, okay.
TN: Yeah, so obviously, she’s into health and wellness and eating healthy. Apparently they just like had dinner together in Tokyo, and they just hit it off, and they were just talking about what they saw, you know, the future of this world, where food going, where health was going, and so kind of I think the seed of this idea for this company came about. Aki had actually visited Lillian in LA, and then they were like walking around Japanese supermarkets, they were like, “Oh, like, this is what we should be addressing. Like, Japanese food is much more than packaged ramen, KitKat bars, you know?
SM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
TN: And so they started their company, and …
SM: Although there is nothing wrong with packaged ramen or KitKat bars.
TN: No, it’s true, I mean. And I think one of the things that Lillian acknowledges, too, is that like Japanese people do eat these packaged foods but in much less frequency than Americans would, right?
TN: When Americans think of Japanese food, they think of these of packaged foods, but that’s all they eat. They’re not getting fresh food all the time from restaurants all the time or whatever. Yeah, so she quit her finance job to pursue this passion, and obviously it’s been less than a year since the company was first started, but they’ve expanded so much.
SM: Thirty-five countries, that’s pretty amazing in less than a year, right?
TN: Yeah, exactly. And she talks about how these care packages almost like bring families together where it’s like, they’re excited—like families are excited to like open this package together, and then like you know, Japanese American parents are like, “Oh yeah, like these are the ingredients that I grew up eating!” And then it’s like a way to talk about the food. And on the, on kind of the personal end of like pursuing her passion, Lillian has been like, you know on social media she’s been so supportive of my own career transition that I’m kind of in the midst of, and she’s like, “You know, it’s like really good to be creative and pursue what you think that the world needs.” So just on a personal note, I thought that was really incredible. And I thought that her experience actually would resonate with your experience actually, so she’s mixed race, “double,” you know I think starting this company was kind of a way to explore different prefectures that she wasn’t familiar with in Japan. Even on our table now we have three different prefectures represented. She herself her name is Lillian Rowlatt. And you know, just like you, it’s not obviously Japanese, but I think she—you know, both times I’ve like kind of exchanged emails and talked to her on the phone, that she really emphasizes her middle name, Hanako and how—you know she is Japanese, and it’s a way to connect with her heritage in a way maybe she can’t travel to Japan all the time, but she can experience Japanese cuisine in a unique way.
SM: I’ve said this on the podcast before, but my business card bears my mom’s birth name, Miyagi. Sometimes names are just names, but as Sarah LaFleur has said on our podcast before, names are important in Japanese culture. Like Lillian, it’s a way for me to feel connected to my Japanese heritage.
SM: So Aki, her business partner, is in Japan. So does Aki visit these farms, and how do they get the farms into their network?
TN: Yeah, so to my understanding—I didn’t get a chance to speak with Aki; she’s based in Tokyo—but she actually visits all the producers that they feature in their products. She goes to a lot of like health and food expos and goes to farmers markets, and I think, you know, kind of in the same way that Beauty by Sunrise with Erina, she kind of wants to feature more like boutique cosmetics companies and stuff, like I think that’s kind of the idea, too. Like, they want to feature producers that like you wouldn’t immediately recognize as like a big food source, you know? I think, you know, they definitely have kind of the staple, like I think the soba company is like really popular or really famous, but the furikake, for example, that we put on the seaweed is like ninth generation, has been around since the Edo period, you know, like stuff you wouldn’t necessarily come across if you’re looking for Japanese food in Japan, you know?
SM: Or in New York.
TN: It’s such a special relationship that Aki has built with these producers and yeah, they really care about really featuring the producers as the people who make these products, and you know, and there’s this idea of shokunin culture that I think we’ve kind of talked about in other episodes, this culture on craftsmanship. And even this red wine vinegar like, it was years and years until like the founder of the company was able to create this red wine vinegar, which is delicious. So Takaaki Amamiya—he’s the founder of Asaya Vinegar, which is where the 5 Year Aged Red Wine Vinegar that we’re actually drinking as a cocktail—the company is based in Yamanashi Prefecture. The red wine vinegar is made from ten varieties of grape, and there’s a double-fermentation process, a five-year aging process. And I think, you know, the idea of just like perfecting your craft is definitely in this product, and it has kind of that aroma of that red wine vinegar, but then when you taste it, it’s like so much smoother in a way because it’s been aged.
SM: It’s mellow.
TN: I think Kokoro Care Package like strives to do that.
SM: On the Kokoro website, they have a blog that features their contributing farmers and food companies in entries titled Producer Spotlights. You can read more about the producers of the ingredients we tried, including Takaaki Amamiya’s Asaya Vinegar, Honda Shoten, Konbumura, and Kodama Ikiiki.
We certainly appreciated the principles of health and wellness that Lillian and Aki strive to instill in their care packages, and although you can enjoy the Kokoro ingredients on their own as we did the rice porridge, we felt that we couldn’t experience our meal to its full potential without fresh produce.
TN: But yeah, and when I was talking to Lillian, obviously we can just have like soba by itself without preparing it with vegetables and shrimp, for example, and the seaweed salad we’ve also kind of combined cabbage with it and piman, or bell peppers, and we are also featuring other fresh produce from Suzuki Farm. So, yeah, so we ordered this yasai set, right?
SM: Yeah, it’s well, Suzuki Farm is a farm that specializes in Japanese vegetables, and they’re in Delaware. And the founder is Ken Suzuki, and he came to the States in 1977.
SM: Ken Suzuki was a chick sexer. However, when the industry standards for the job changed, his salary was reduced, and he has said that he needed to find a new job.
SM: And so he founded Suzuki Farm in 1983, so that was a really long time ago. And Japanese food really wasn’t as popular as it is now. And so, it was, he took a huge leap of faith to start the company, but it’s thriving. He FedExes food in these box sets.
TN: Yeah, we got it in like less that two days.
SM: Yeah. So that was cool. It’s fresh, and you mentioned the entire daikon, the negi is gigantic.
TN: Yeah, and it still has like the roots and the stems on them.
SM: Yeah, it’s kind of, kind of amazing. The presentation wasn’t as pretty as Kokoro’s packaging but yeah, what’s inside is really impressive. And like you can tell this came straight from a farm. And the flavor is so good. Like you grated daikon to put on top of the soba, and it’s really, it’s really, really good.
TN: One thing I didn’t actually know about Suzuki Farm , obviously it started because you know, Suzuki-san wanted to you know, create this resource for Japanese people to kind of have traditional vegetables, but it’s also kind of ubiquitous in that like Suzuki products are in grocery stores around the city, right? That’s something that I didn’t actually realize or even notice. But you said that you like visited Katagiri, right?
SM: Yeah, I went to Katagiri recently, not all of their produce, but there was several different kinds of produce had, their packaging had a Suzuki Farm label on it. It’s also available at Mitsuwa in New Jersey, and I’ve also seen their vegetables at the different Dainobus in town, too. They supply to restaurants, and they supply to local grocery stores, too. And if you don’t see what you want at a grocery store, you can go online and order whatever, you know, whatever they have available, too. And it’s seasonal.
TN: I mean, I’ve heard of like CSA boxes where you can order a subscription, and obviously like that’s cool, too, but it’s kind of cool that you can specifically order like I wanted to order a kabocha. It wasn’t part of the yasai set, but I just wanted to order kabocha, and like you can just like add that to your cart. I mean, that’s kind of cool.
SM: Suzuki Farm also sources to businesses and residents in Washington DC, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
SM: So Suzuki Farm gets the seeds from Japan. Not, you know, whatever they can import from Japan that you know, that US will let in. So, there are some things that they would want to grow, but they can’t because they can’t get the seeds into the country. They also must disinfect the seeds in order for it to come in and pass customs, so because of that, they’re not allowed to call it “organic.” So they can’t label it as organic, but they do say on their website and on their Facebook page that they don’t use pesticides in the growing. And they use natural, like wood vinegar to kind of keep critters away. The very first time that I saw Suzuki Farm or heard of Suzuki Farm was actually at a Japan Block Fair. It’s now called JapanFes. But a few years ago, the street fairs that go on in the summertime, they’ll take a block of a city block of an existing street fair and have just Japanese goods, and yeah, that’s the first time I heard of Suzuki Farm, and I was like oh, that’s so cool. And I thought it was kind of interesting that they’re based in Delaware, but I guess the land is good. They have greenhouses, too. They have yuzu trees down there.
SM: Although I heard about Suzuki Farm 9 years ago, this was my first time ordering any produce from them, and I was impressed by the quality and the sizes of the vegetables they shipped us. If I’m too lazy to head to Midtown to shop at Dainobu or Katagiri, it’s nice to know there’s a farm that will ship them to the Upper East Side.
At this point, we finished the soba, salad, and porridge, and stricken with negi breath, we were happy to cleanse our palettes with more sparkling cocktails and the blueberry amazake that Toshiki put in the freezer so that we could have as a sorbet. And well, it turned out to be a little too frozen, but Toshiki was determined to make it look like the photo in the Kokoro Care Packages pamphlet.
TN: You mixed this well. The drink.
SM: Oh, thanks! I get the no-measuring thing from my mom, so somehow that turned out okay. So it’s still a little bit frozen.
TN: This is good. It’s the perfect amount of sweetness for someone who doesn’t like sweets. I don’t really like sweets, so.
SM: Yeah. So it was so nice of Lillian to send this package to us, to reach out to you. And this is a complimentary thing, but so what if we were to order ourselves, what’s the cost?
TN: Yeah, that’s a good question. So each Nourishing Essential, which is a monthly package, I believe they’re $55, but then if you subscribe to like three months, or six months, or twelve months, then there’s a small discount associated with it. But it is kind of—the idea is a recurring process, so I think they also have gift options where you can just gift one person, like you can gift a friend a one-month package, right, it’s not a recurring thing.
SM: There’s also an option for a Seasonal Delights Care Package that’s once every three months, and this care package costs $95 and has a few more items than the monthly Nourishing Essentials package.
These prices actually include free shipping to the US, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Korea, Macao, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam.
OK, I got carried away, but you get the idea. You can check their website to see if there are additional shipping costs to your country and possible customs fees.
TN: I think the kind of the benefit of these care packages isn’t necessarily the quantity or the amount per package or whatever, it’s just like the variety and also like kind of the more intimate connection you have with certain regions, that like you’re like oh, this is the type of food that they produce.
SM: Like you’ve used the word “explore” a couple of times tonight, and I feel like yeah, this you can definitely do, explore Japanese cuisine from your kitchen.
SM: Toshiki and I enjoyed food from Yamanashi Prefecture, Hiroshima Prefecture, and the great state of Delaware.
TN: Was there anything different about your trip this time than like previous times to North Carolina? Like maybe—You’ve often said that this podcast has opened your eyes…
SM: Our dinner was the first time we had seen each other since I returned to New York from my trip to North Carolina, so as we finished dessert and sipped on our cocktails, we caught up with each other about the last days of our summers.
SM: Thank you for cooking! It was great!
TN: Thank you for de-veining!
SM: Yeah, that was a project! My hands are.
TN: While I did everything else!
SM: Thanks to Lillian Rowlatt and Aki Sugiyama at Kokoro Care Packages for sending us a complimentary August Nourishing Essentials Care Package. Special thanks to Lillian from Toshiki for being so encouraging every time he posts about his career transition. He appreciates the kind words.
Thanks to Ken Suzuki and the people at Suzuki Farm for answering our many questions. Thanks to Mr. Kasai of Dainobu, the friendly employee at Katagiri, and Erina Yoshida of Sunrise Mart for helping us understand the reach of Suzuki Farm products in the Greater New York Area.
Thanks to Toshiki’s dog Jayden for not throwing up after eating a shishito pepper that fell on the floor.
If you’re listening to this podcast right now, please go to thebigrootpodcast.com/survey to fill out our listener survey. We’re about halfway through the first season of The Big Root, and with plans for a second season in 2020, we want your feedback to make better episodes! There are 13 questions about you, how you found out about the podcast, how you like to listen to the podcast, what episodes you thought were good or bad, and what subjects you’d be interested in hearing more about. Please go to thebigrootpodcast.com/survey.
Filling out the survey would support us, but if you’re feeling extra generous, we’re also looking for listener support at patreon.com/toshnaka. Become a patron of this podcast and other things Toshiki does, including science stuff. A monthly contribution goes a long way—patreon.com/toshnaka.
You can subscribe to The Big Root mailing list at thebigrootpodcast.com/subscribe for news and updates, including information about live events. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, so search for us at The Big Root. There’s more information about Kokoro Care Packages and Suzuki Farm on our website thebigrootpodcast.com, and if you want Japanese ingredients shipped directly to you, their websites will be linked there, too.
If you remember from our earlier episode “There Is No Melon in Melonpan,” I took home the shokupan dough, and our baker instructor Daichi Ebato told us that we had a month before it would go bad. Well, I made one big loaf of shokupan with it on the twenty ninth day. It tasted good, and my coworkers were impressed by my baking abilities. Well, the Suzuki Farm produce doesn’t have expiration dates listed, but I should get to cooking my goya champuru with the extra bitter melons I accidentally ordered. To Toshiki, who cooked the soba, Gochisodamadeshita!
SM: The Big Root is an independently produced podcast.
TGN: The theme song was performed by Kento Iwasaki, and this episode was edited by me and transcribed by Susan McCormac.
SM: For more information about the podcast, please visit thebigrootpodcast.com.
TGN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige
SM: I’m Susan McCormac. Until next time.