What Is Japanese Ginger? – A Brief Guide to Myoga

What Is Japanese Ginger? – A Brief Guide to Myoga-Japanese Taste
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    When looking around a supermarket or greengrocer in Japan, have you seen a flower bulb that is pinkish red in the middle and yellow on the base and tips? Chances are that you are looking at “Myoga”, which is sometimes referred to as Japanese ginger.

    This blog post will look at what Myoga is, where it is grown and eaten, its religious significance, and how it is used in cooking. We will also consider its nutritional benefits, where you can buy it, and how to choose the best Myoga.

    We will start, however, by debunking an old wives’ tale that if you took it at face value could put you off eating it at all.

    Can Myoga Affect Your Mental Health?

    There is an old saying in Japan that if you eat too much Myoga, you will become stupid or suffer from memory loss. Rest assured, however, that there is no scientific basis for this assertion. This seems to trace back to a story about one of Buddha’s disciples who found it difficult to memorize things, to the extent that he couldn’t even remember his own name. Even when a nameplate was hung around his head, he forgot to look at it. When he died, the plants that grew on his grave were given the name “Myoga” due to a play on words. This association between Myoga and memory loss somehow stuck.

    As we shall see later in the article, however, rather than being a cause of cognitive decline, it has a whole host of nutritional benefits to offer. Ironically enough, in Chinese medicine, Myoga has the opposite reputation and is actively used as a substance that prevents memory loss.

    What Is Myoga, And Where Is It Grown And Eaten?

    myoga japanese ginger

    Myoga is a perennial herb that grows wild in Japan, from the islands of Honshu to Okinawa, and is a member of the ginger family, Gingeraceae. It is available all year round when grown in greenhouses, but when grown outside, its peak season is summer to fall.

    Along with ginger and other herbs, both the flowers and stems have long been popular in Japan as a savory vegetable. In fact, there are references to the plant in literature going way back to the Heian period (794-1185). 

    Myoga, although containing overtones of western ginger, is slightly less pungent. It has a highly distinctive taste with a zesty tang. This, added to its crunchy texture and refreshing feel on the palate makes it a firm favorite for use in a variety of dishes. In addition to its delicious taste, its vibrant pink hue can add a refreshing dash of color to your meal table.

    It is also consumed in some places in China, but this is usually as an ingredient for Chinese herbal medicine, and it is generally only in Japan that it is cultivated as something deemed fit to grace the meal table.

    Is There Any Religious Significance To Myoga?

    Myoga ginger sitting atop of a leaf

    There appears to be a deep connection between Myoga and religion in Japan. In fact, it has even been suggested by some that it was named “Myoga” (茗荷) to link it to another word pronounced “Myoga”(冥加), which is best translated as “providence” or “divine protection”.

    In the Asusuki Shrine in Shiga Prefecture, a “Myoga Festival” is held every year on “Setsubun” day (the start of February, one day before Spring begins). Considered one of the seven wonders of Shiga, this is a ritual of divination using a particular type of Myoga grown in a special field on the grounds of the shrine in which the deity is asked whether the next rice crop will be a good one or not. 

    A similar festival is held in Menuma Shrine in Hyogo Prefecture, in which a priest takes three myoga buds, purifies them in the “Menu-ike” pond, and offers them to the gods. Worshippers then look at the shape, size, color, and other growth characteristics of the myoga sprouts to judge the outcome of the following year’s harvest.

    How Is Myoga Used In Japanese Cooking?

    Myoga Hiyayakko Chilled Tofu

    Unlike western ginger in which the root is eaten, the Myoga root is completely inedible, and it is the flowers (Hana-myoga) and shoots (Myoga-no-ko) that are used for culinary purposes. In Japanese food, the flower buds are often finely shredded and used as a garnish for miso soup and side dishes, such as sunomono (vinegar-based vegetable dishes), pickled to make tsukemono, or deep-fried as an ingredient in vegetable tempura.

    Myoga particularly comes to the fore in the summer, when it graces dishes such as hiyayakko (chilled tofu), salads, or chilled somen or soba noodles as a topping. It can also be mixed into steamed rice. If the distinctive aroma of Myoga is not to your taste, you can soften this by adding it to soups or stir-frying it with a small amount of sesame oil to soften the aroma.

    Whereas the bulb of the Myoga is its most commonly eaten part, you can also enjoy its flavorful shoots, which are grown in a way that they are not exposed to sunlight and are harvested when they are still young and tender. With the appearance of long green onions, they have a crispy texture and a more subdued aroma and flavor compared to the bulb. This makes them suitable for dishes where you want to enjoy their elegant aromas, such as vinegared dishes, marinated dishes, and soup ingredients. Myoga shoots are also enjoyed in sushi, offering a vegan-friendly version of this popular dish.

    Although generally not used in Western food, Myoga is starting to gain recognition overseas, with even “Great British Chefs” featuring a recipe for “Pickled Myoga” on its website.

    An example of a simple, yet delicious and healthy, recipe using Myoga that is ideal as a side dish for cold noodles or rice during the summer is “Nasu-to-Myoga no Momizuke”:

    1. Cut an eggplant in half lengthwise, then cut the eggplant half into thick pieces of 2 to 3 mm each and place in a bowl.
    2. Sprinkle salt over the eggplant pieces, rub the salt in lightly, and leave to stand for a while.
    3. Rinse with water and squeeze dry.
    4. Cut the Myoga in half lengthwise and then cut into small pieces, soak in water and drain. Combine the prepared eggplant and Myoga.
    5. (Optional) Add finely-chopped ginger.
    6. Pour soy sauce over the ingredients and serve.

    Is Myoga Good For You?

    A piece of myoga

    Although over-consumption of Myoga has been traditionally feared as a potential risk factor for cognitive decline, this is scientifically baseless, and nutritional evidence actually points the other way. The fresh aroma of Myoga is the result of the presence of an essential oil ingredient known as alpha-pinene. One of the effects of this nutrient is to stimulate the cerebral cortex. Alpha-pinene also has additional health benefits, such as sharpening the appetite and helping you to perspire.

    The reddish pigment in Myoga is a result of a polyphenol known as Anthocyanin. This is a flavonoid that helps to fight free radicals, which are unstable molecules in the body that can damage cells and potentially lead to “lifestyle-related diseases” of type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Therefore, increasing the consumption of such antioxidants may help reduce inflammation and help the body fight against such diseases.

    Myoga contains high levels lot of potassium, which helps to eliminate sodium from the body and lower blood pressure. Potassium also improves blood flow and is effective in relieving swelling caused by excessive water intake. Potassium is a nutrient that fares less well when cooked, so eating Myoga raw in salads and pickled form is a great way to ensure a rich source of potassium.

    Myoga is also high in dietary fiber, which helps prevent constipation and regulates blood sugar. Traditionally, it is known for its effectiveness in preventing natsu-bate (summer fatigue) and colds. The broth in which myoga is boiled was used in folk medicine to treat frostbite.

    Choosing The Best Myoga

    Choosing the best myoga

    While, hopefully, this post may have whetted your appetite for trying some Myoga dishes yourself at home, you may not know where to get it or how to make sure you can enjoy it in its freshest form. We have provided some tips on choosing the best Myoga, which is readily available in the vegetable section of supermarkets and most greengrocers, below.

    The freshest Myoga bulbs are those that are round and fat with the leaves closed. You should also make sure that the bulb feels firm and there is no “give” when lightly pressing it with your fingers. Bulbs with only a thin layer of flesh or open leaves are very likely to have lost their favor, and these should be avoided. Fresh Myoga is shiny and pinkish in color.

    Myoga – The Aromatic, Healthy, And Colorful Japanese Vegetable

    Healthy Japanese Myoga ginger

    Although only cultivated for food in Japan, and little-known outside of Asia, Myoga is an aromatic and colorful member of the Gingeraceae ginger family, and its flower buds and flavorsome shoots are enjoyed for their crunchy texture and addictive and distinctive taste.

    It is also an extremely nutritious Japanese vegetable. Contrary to its long-held, but baseless association with memory loss, it has numerous health benefits, particularly when eaten raw. These include high levels of antioxidants, potassium, and dietary fiber, as well as an essential oil alpha-pinene, that stimulates the cerebral cortex and increases appetite. It may also help to prevent colds and stave off fatigue in the summer months.

    Curious about other Japanese vegetables? Check out this post where we introduce the top 20 Japanese vegetables. 

     Have you tried Myoga yet? Let us know what you think of it in the comments.


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