Our Edible Roots: the Japanese Canadian Kitchen Garden
Yama no imo: Dioscorea japonica Thunb
Yama no imo is one among a long list of vegetables produce on Hiro Okusa’s organic farm. For his yama no imo, Mr. Okusa constructed a 50 foot long and 5 foot tall by 4 foot wide raised bed. Above the bed is a 6 foot tall trellis to support the vines of the yama no imo plants.
Yama no imo is a climbing vine that produces a yam-like tuber. In my observations, it is more or less an undomesticated vegetable. In contrast, naga imo is a commercialized variety imported from Asian countries, and sold in various Asian grocery stores.
I have visited the Okusa Farm twice. The first was during the middle of summer when the yama no imo plants were full grown and flowering. The second time was the harvesting time on the very same day that a heavy rain alert was issued by Environment Canada! This time Tracy Nishimura and Miki Miyano, fellow members of the Tonari Gumi Garden Club, came along. Once the 5 foot tall walls were taken down, Mr. Okusa used a backhoe and skillfully scraped away the soil of the bed vertically, leaving just the part of the yama no imo exposed in the wet bed. We were tasked with hand digging the yams without breaking them. To my surprise, the yama no imo that Okusa Farm grows are all different shapes from different districts of Japan. Some were flat and beaver tail-shaped, others were fat and shaped like a caveman’s club, and the most were up to 2 to 3 feet long and grew deep into this five feet bed. There in this raised bed, all of the confusion of naming yama no imo was obvious.
I met one avid gardener who grew yama no imo in a community garden in Burnaby. His yams were planted in a ground-level bed with a 5 foot high teepee-shaped support for their vines. These yama no imo were also shaped like a caveman’s club, and they were between two and two and a half feet long.
On an early November day, Makiko Suzuki, my TG Garden Club partner, and I visited Mr. Tomasky Takuo Hashizume’s garden in Abbotsford. Mr. Hashizume showed us his yama no imo, which had just been harvested. My goodness, his yams were the most ugly shape, like fat gloves with many deformed fingers. They weighed about one kilogram each. It takes four years to grow yams to this size from mukago* seedlings. They are so large that one yam could make ten serving of tororo soba easily.
*Mukago is a pea sized potato formed at leaf axis of the vine.
We know that yama no imo were grown in Mission, BC before the WWII through the help of Ms. Pat Sassa who located the last surviving participant of an old, undated publication, “ Oriental Cuisine”, produced by the Taber Buddhist Association Ladies Auxiliary. According to Mrs. Mikurube, a Japanese Canadian farmer in Surray, many farmers who returned to the Lower Mainland after internment continued the yama no imo growing tradition. What happened to those yama no imo after the farms changed hands when many became housing developments?
Mrs. Tazuko Mochizuki’s garden in East Vancouver has yama no imo that seem long forgotten. Mrs. Mochizuki showed me the bed at the very end of the garden along the back lane. There, the typical delicate yama no imo vines were growing. Mrs. Mochizuki had absolutely no intention whatsoever in digging up these yams. She said that it was a hard digging work. She emphasized this, saying, “No, no, it’s not worth doing that.” As her husband had not cared to dig the yams a couple of years before he passed away, we together calculated that Mrs. Mochizuki’s yams were a good six years old in the ground. She said many of her friends had also grown yama no imo in their gardens, but many were gone or had moved. One person she knew well had recently moved into a condo, leaving behind the yama no imo in the backyard. Mrs. Mochizuki’s husband and his friend were both kika nisei, having returned to Canada in their early 20”s. Mrs. Mochizuki does not think they brought their yama no imo from Japan since they did not own a house for quite a while.
As the Okusa’s, Hashizume’s and Burnaby community garden yama no imo were all brought from Japan after 1967, and the Mochizuki family has a pre-war connection to Japanese community, it is possible that the Mohizuki’s yama no imo has descended from a line of prewar heirloom variety.
There was one more person of ninety-five years of age who brought in his yama no imo to the Tama Organic grocery store last year. His yama no imo were exactly like the Hashizume’s, the ugly, many fingered glove shape. Was this yam also a pre-WWII heirloom?
Let’s dig our history through The Japanese Canadian Kitchen Gardens.
The treasured stories are buried deep in unknown farms and backyard gardens.
Did you eat yama no imo with your old family table? Did you watch Grandma grating yams to a sticky white blob? Do you have a memory of helping to dig up yama no imo? Who else was growing it then?
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Our Edible Roots, The Japanese Canadian Kitchen Garden can be purchased at the Tonari Gumi Fall Bazaar on Saturday, November 3, or any time at the Gift Shop at 101 – 42 W. 8th Ave., Vancouver, B.C. Canada V5Y 1M7