Minden eggplants adored by Basho Matsuo
Arrived in Dewa Province after traveling in the mountains for days, how lovely the color of early eggplants―These lines were written by Basho Matsuo (1644-1694), a revered Haiku* poet who visited Tsuruoka following a pilgrimage to the Three Mountains of Dewa. The “early eggplants” in this Haiku are believed to refer to Minden eggplants. We visited Mr. Seizo Hasegawa, who cultivates the Minden eggplants, in the Tochiya area.
*Haiku is a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world.
The Minden eggplant is one of Tsuruoka’s long-standing indigenous crops. This eggplant is round-shaped, early-grown type with hard skin, but with a resilient texture owing to a well-filled flesh, and is used as an ingredient for Japanese pickles. It is supposedly said that carpenters from Kyoto specializing in shrines and temples brought the eggplant seeds to the Minden area when they constructed the main building of the Hachiman Shrine during the Edo Period (1603-1868).
On 26th July, 1687, Basho Matsuo visited Tsuruoka following a visit to the Three Mountains of Dewa. The lines that were written at the gathering of Haiku poets are “Arrived in Dewa Province after traveling in the mountains for days, how lovely the color of early eggplants.” The “early eggplants” in these lines are believed to be the Minden eggplants that were served to Basho Matsuo at the Nagayama’s residence.
An eggplant this size can fit in the palm of yourhand. Eggplants that are 8g to 15g are the most delicious, according to Mr. Hasegawa. With a closer look at the eggplant, one can see the top part of the eggplant covered with calyx is white in color. This white part indicates the crop’s growth for the day.
Mr. Seizo Hasegawa is a 7th-generation farmer. Apart from the Minden eggplants, he mainly cultivates rice as along with edamame and soya beans. He also cultivates cucumbers and stocks in plastic greenhouses. As for the Minden eggplant, Mr. Hasegawa started cultivation about 20 years ago. A motive for cultivating one of Tsuruoka’s indigenous crops was a recommendation from a well-established “Honcho pickles shop” located in the Oyama area, which suggested the Minden eggplant as an ingredient for pickles. Before the recommendation, Mr. Hasegawa had been cultivating ordinary long eggplants called “choja-nasu.” Up until a few years ago, he was growing as many as 1,000 to 1,200 Minden eggplant plants. The cultivation work had been done by himself and his partner, but because of the labour becoming too hard for the aged man and help from his partner is no longer available, Mr. Hasegawa sowed only about 600 plants this year.
The Minden eggplant is three to four centimeters long and weighs only about 15g. The first two eggplants from right in the photo are regarded as nonstandard.
The Minden eggplant basks in strong summer sunshine, but becomes bigger and bigger if the most appropriate harvest time is missed by just one day.
In general, when harvesting eggplants, the part just above the calyx is cut off with scissors. The Minden eggplant, however, is harvested piece by piece by hand and without scissors. If you place your fingers just above the calyx and swiftly twist and snap it off, you can pick one.
The harvest begins in mid-June and runs through October at the latest. Every morning, two to three hours are required for the work. When the eggplants are growing faster, harvesting is needed both in the morning and evening. Maybe because of this, eggplant farmers are decreasing in number, said Mr. Hasegawa.
Due to damage by continuous cropping, even with grafting, a section of the eggplant field is left uncultivated once every five years. The Minden eggplants years ago would grow about one meter high at the highest, but these days, the crops grow about 1.5 meters high. There was no reduction of rice acreage in the past and cropping fields are smaller in area than they are today. Therefore, seedlings were densely planted. Today, however, there are a lot of cropping fields available and the seedlings are planted sparsely in order to protect the crops from injury by continuous cropping and to increase the yield.
“Since old days, I grow the Minden eggplant to this bigger size to gather seeds. Each household carefully inherits the seeds. I suppose this act will help preserve the indigenous crops,” said Mr. Hasegawa.
“Take a closer look. If you look at the length of pistils surrounded by yellow stamens, you can tell if nutrients are sufficient or not,” Mr. Hasegawa told us. According to him, if the pistils are not long enough, this means the nutrients are not sufficient.
Currently, most of the Minden eggplants that Mr. Hasegawa harvests are pickles produced by the Japanese pickles shop “Honcho.” “Honcho” is in partnership with dozens of Minden eggplant producers, including Mr. Hasegawa.
The harvest time of theMinden eggplants is four months and farmers have to harvest the crop every day. Because of this hard work, farmers are decreasing in number year after year. Mr. Hasegawa wants to cultivate eggplants as long as possible.