I’ve lived among Japanese fruits and vegetables for 17 years and one thing I can say for sure is that vegetables are waaay smarter than fruits.
I say this even having lived all of my time in Okayama Prefecture, famous for its fruit, most of which are grown to gigantic proportions. Such oversize fruit makes for good local folk-tale building as seen in the legend of Momotaro, the Peach Boy. The story goes that one day an old woman found a giant peach floating down the river. She plucked the peach out of the river and took it home to show her husband. But when the old man started to cut the peach open with a knife, a baby boy jumped out (this was surely the first peach Cesarian birth ever recorded). The Peach Boy grew up and went on to slay demons and become a local hero. Although there is no information on Momotaro’s biological parents, his mother was most definitely pink, rotted just after he was born, and was quite possibly even a fruitcake. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a great fruit story since.
▼ The juicy birth of Momotaro-san
But the story of Momotaro is almost believable in Okayama, where peaches are coddled by their growers who wrap each piece of fruit in its own paper covering while the fruit is still on the branch. This protects the little darlings from skin blemishes, insects and the elements. It’s a wonder each fruit doesn’t get a hat and sunscreen provided by the management.
Another luscious fruit grown in Okayama is muscat grapes. To eat them properly, you painstakingly peel the skin off each globule before indulging in the fleshy bits. These grapes are also used to make a sweet dessert wine.
▼ Beautiful grapes, but do we have to peel each one and gets our fingers all sticky just to eat them?
Does all this attention add up to fruit that really performs? As a fruit and vegetable investigative reporter, I have to say no. All that pampering just produces lazy fruit that can no longer grow on its own, nor look after itself. Most fruit is so dumb that when it falls from the branch, it gets bruised and is unfit for eating.
▼ This usually sweet fruit has had a bitter experience
I live in the southern part of the prefecture, on Shiraishi Island in the Seto Inland Sea. Some of our 570 residents raise fruit while others prefer vegetables. I always feel sorry for the legal guardians of fruit because they spend so much more time and energy trying to raise a decent fruit.
▼ Some of my neighbors who raise mulberries have installed nets to catch the little berries should they fall before getting picked.
Even watermelons, that proliferate on the ground, cannot fend for themselves these days. Farmers cover the plants with extensive netting to protect them from hungry birds. What will become of our young fruits should they have to grow up in the real world without all these safety nets? They’ll die of consumption–by predators. Face it: If it were survival of the fittest, we’d be left with only thick-skinned fruit of the citrus variety, and lots of vegetables.
Vegetables are so survival savvy, they thrive on their own with minimal care. Most of them grow on or near the ground where they don’t have far to fall while others grow underground, where airborne fleets cannot find them. Vegetables don’t require ladders to be picked, they won’t rot as soon as they’ve ripened and they understand that you are busy and will come pick them soon enough. They are far more patient than that impetuous fruit that jumps off the branch as soon as its ready without taking into account others’ schedules.
Vegetables such as the onion, a root vegetable, comes to the surface to let you know when it is ready to be harvested.
▼ Here I am, pick me!
▼ Island onions enjoying some free time after the harvest
Vegetables are in no hurry at all and are a pleasure to be around. It’s no wonder the already busy Japanese hold vegetables close to their hearts. In fact, many of the veggies have become celebrities in their own right.
So here it is–the top three of Japan’s smartest vegetables:
1. Daikon Radish
The highest IQ vegetable is surely the daikon radish, who, being a root vegetable, scores in the top percentile of the vegetable kingdom.
▼ Daikon Bob lives in my neighborhood. Don’t ya just love his hair?
Healthy, stylish and athletic, the daikon radish is in a class by itself. Daihoonji Temple in Kyoto holds a ceremony for the esteemed radish every year at the beginning of December and serves up to 10,000 servings of daikon soup to participants seeking good health. One bowl of steaming daikon soup costs 1,000 yen (that’s almost US$10 for a bowl of soup!). The stylish radish is so faddish, it has a Japanese phrase daikonashi named after it to describe people with big thick legs.
Some daikon have risen to fame for their athletic ability. Konsai Umemama’s story and photos of his Escaping Radish were a runaway hit on Twitter. Many others have discovered the human-like qualities of the daikon and photographed them. Some of them are even sexy.
Curious, I went out for a walk around the island to see if I could find some daikon engaged in activity. It wasn’t long before I came across this radish out getting some exercise.
▼ It must feel good to get out and stretch the legs after being in that hole all day!
I also came across these two daikon chatting on a ledge.
The rutabaga, a cousin twice removed of the radish, has also risen to the top of the heap of intelligence due to its rollability and propensity for sports. Yoshio Otsuka, highly revered for his passion for reviving strains of extinct turnip species, qualified to participate in the 2012 International Rutabaga Curling Championship in New York. And don’t miss the video Sympathy for the Vegetable (“Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a plant of health and taste”) which helps explain the roots of the rutabaga.
2. Renkon (Lotus Root)
Another genius within the vegetable kingdom is renkon, or “lotus root,” an auspicious vegetable eaten on New Years in Japan.
▼ Renkon is thought to bring good luck
The fact that renkon has holes in it makes it a very stylish vegetable on the plate. I put it up there in the category of other cool things with holes in them such as Swiss cheese and 5-yen coins.
▼ With all those holes, you could hardly choke on renkon.
Not only is eating the vegetable said to bring good luck, but the lotus is very spiritual and the flower is the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment. And did you know that the leaves and seeds are edible?
▼ Looks like dessert to me!
The lotus flower is revered for its ability to rise from the bottom of dirty, murky water to bloom into a beautiful pure flower. This symbolizes the process of attaining enlightenment. The Japanese even have a word, kanrensetsu, which means lotus flower viewing. There are even kanrensetsu parties where people wake up before dawn and assemble at lotus ponds to watch the flowers bloom at the break of day. I’m not sure if you can reach enlightenment by eating lotus root, but it should be pointed out that Buddha’s most notable teaching on “emptiness” as a necessary step to enlightenment is reflected in the Lotus Sutra. The lotus is a symbol of the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. That’s one deep-thinking plant.
The third most intelligent vegetable–one often overlooked in the west but prized in the east–is the precocious seaweed. The aquatic equivalent to a land-based root vegetable, it chooses to grow underwater where it is protected, and thrives.
Nori, and it’s relatives wakame and konbu provide an endless source of nutrition and flavor and are staples in Japanese food. Konbu is one of the three ingredients in dashi (Japanese broth) and is responsible for umami, or savory taste, the fifth flavor recently acknowledged as an addition to the stalwart four: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Seaweed is easy to grow (they’ll grow on and cling to nets submerged in the sea) and can even be turned into biofuel.
▼ A Shiraishi Island fisherman communes with his nori nets in the Seto Inland Sea
▼ Shiraishi Island nori eventually gets packaged and sold.
And if you’re not convinced yet of the high IQ of this sea vegetable, then here is something that will surely convince you. Tanotaiga, an artist tracing the history of seaweed-making in the Seto Inland Sea, went as far as constructing a boat from the stuff!
▼ Both the hull and sail of Tanotaiga’s boat are made from seaweed.
Okay, pretty clever. But will it float?
▼ Surely, you didn’t have any doubts, did you?
That nori is one smart sea plant. It has proven that you can have your boat and eat it too. And wait–there’s more! Now you can give your child the gift of a 3-meter-long (10ft) seafood plush toy!
It’s no surprise that fruits just can’t compete with good-natured vegetables who are clever, resourceful, efficient and even plushy. Fruits may be more beautiful, juicier or more colorful, but they just don’t measure up to the vegetables’ IQ. Perhaps that’s why there are many vegetarians in the world, but few fruitarians.
Nominate your favorite high-IQ vegetable in the comments section!