Thursday, January 28, 2010

Nagaimo (Japanese mountain yam) and Okra, Cinderella of vegetables

Recently, when buying taro (cocoyams, mankani) at an Asian market, I was excited to see what looked like a long, thin-skinned, gorgeous yam, and immediately snatched some up along with the cocoyams and ginger root (much fresher and cheaper than what I can find in regular grocery stores). At the checkout counter, I was stunned to find that small yam cost about $11! When I asked the clerk what it was, she had to look it up, and told me it's very healthy, Japanese people use it, and the name is nagaimo. I did a little research and discovered that it is from the Dioscorea family (like African yams) and is known as Dioscorea opposita or D. batatas, (or: nagaimo, yamaimo (Japan), Japanese mountain yam, ma (Korea), Korean yam, glutinous yam, cinnamon vine, Chinese yam, shan yao, huai shan, or huai shan yao (China).

It is a type of yam that may be eaten raw, and it has a delicate texture and flavor. It was a treat, though slimier to peel than African yams, and worked when boiled and eaten with a stew. The price makes it a luxury I probably won't use unless absolutely necessary (or when I'm cooking Japanese food, in which case it is often grated and eaten raw and soaked or included in things like pancakes or noodles.)

Okra waiting to take its rightful place

I did not grow up eating okra. It wasn't until I lived in Ghana that I fell in love with it. In the U.S., unlike other parts of the world,  it is considered one of the least favorite vegetables, partly because of its "mucilaginous" properties (i.e., "it's slimy").  Lost Crops of Africa, vol. II on vegetables, declared okra to be a "Cinderella. . . still living on the hearth of neglect amid the ashes of scorn." (p. 287). The book lauds okra for its mind-boggling health benefits and nutrients (e.g., seeds providing excellent vegetable protein and oil with qualities similar to olive oil, rich in tryptophan and sulfer-containing amino acids, okra pods helping to lower serum cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar in diabetics (high soluble fiber), filled with vitamins and minerals. . . It is an important food crop in West Africa. There are different types of okra. In Ghana there is the familiar long slender pod, and a shorteder, fatter pod. In the North of Ghana, the pods are dried for use in soups and stews. I'll soon post a recipe for a soup using dried okra and tomatoes.

When I happened upon some lovely fresh okra in the grocery store a couple of weeks ago, I promptly brought some home, cooked part, and rinsed, then dried the rest on a cookie sheet in a very slow oven (less than 200 degrees, or a little higher than the "warm" setting) for several hours.
BTW, fresh crisp okra are to frozen okra as fresh green beans are to frozen ones.


aliya said...

Hello, nice to write with you from Japan. I am also struggling Ghanaian dishes here every day, looking forward to reading your website very much. By the way I think "Nagaimo" is not suitable as Ghanaian staple, but "Yamaimo" (Deascorea Japonica) is nice than it (shape is really same but taste is very far from African yam when heating, boiling & frying), FYI I often use Yamaimo as substitution of Ghanaian yam. In Japan, we can hardly get real African yams, even seen at a store in Tokyo sometimes, 40USD per root..(so I've heard some Ghanaians try to grow yams at small field in Japan recently) At vegetable markets here, a piece of fresh Yamaimo would be only 1USD.
I don't know whether that Nagaimo is produced in the US or import from Japan, anyway 11USD is expensive...!

---Akiko Aliya Endo, Japan

JA Freeman said...

That is a very expensive yam! I am fairly new to African cuisine and look forward to reading more of your ideas, knowledge and recipes. I'm also curious to know how you feel about fried okra (with a light dredge almost like tempura)?

Erin Winslow aka Itsbugart said...

Honey, I'm from South Carolina and you don't talk trash about okra there, believe me!!! :-)

Fran said...