Most vegetables used in Japanese cooking can easily be grown at home. I’ve compiled 16 Japanese vegetables, many of which I grow each year.
My wife is Japanese so when I first started growing food, it was natural to try and grow some vegetables she was used to cooking with.
In Japanese dishes, many vegetables are used that you’re probably familiar with. Carrots, onions, cabbage, etc.
However the Japanese also grow some unique vegetables not commonly found in western kitchens or gardens.
While there are some vegetables that are exclusively Japanese, many Japanese vegetables are also used in other Asian countries such as China, Korea and further south.
I’ll focus in this article on those Japanese veggies that grow well in many different climates.
I won’t be able to cover everything of course. Just some of the veggies we grow and some others we’d like to grow.
This will be also a primer in Japanese veggie words – you’ll be tested at the end. (Just kidding!)
Let’s start with the cooler season veggies.
Cool Season Japanese Vegetables
Negi – green onions/scallions
Commonly used in miso soup, negi is simply a green onion. Usually though Japanese negi has less white part and does not bulb at all. And some negi can grow very long!
We grow a variety called Kincho.
We rarely harvest the whole plant, just cutting off the large leaves for miso soup or to add to stir-fries or fried rice.
It grows well in mild winters, allowing us to harvest most of the winter. It can also be harvested, chopped and then frozen in bags for later use in winter.
Bonus is if you let the central stalk develop a seed head – you can then harvest those seeds and plant more.
Kabu – turnips
Kabu has a more delicate, sweet taste than the traditional purple-topped turnips that we’re used to growing.
This is a cool weather crop as it has a tendency to bolt in hot weather and then the roots get woody and can turn bitter.
Grow in early spring just after your last frost date.
Late summer is also a great time to grow kabu and will result in less insect damage and better taste.
Since it’s susceptible to cabbage moth and flea beetle damage, it’s best to cover immediately with row cover after sowing seeds or transplanting seedlings.
And the turnip tops can also be harvested and steamed or added to miso soup.
Komatsuna – spinach mustard
Another cold hardy crop is komatsuna, which is a mustard but more like spinach in taste.
Young leaves are prepared like spinach, while older leaves are stronger in flavour and usually are either pickled or used in soups or stews.
It grows very well in mild weather and can grow very large leaves, similar in size to swiss chard.
Mizuna – mustard greens
You’ll find this green in some commercial salad mixes. Usually it’s harvests for the baby greens.
Again easy to grow like any other green.
Once it has bolted, mizuna will have a very hot taste and is then only used in hot pots or other cooked dishes.
Saya-endo – snow peas
These of course are common in Chinese takeout dishes, but the Japanese use them as well.
Often eaten in miso soup, cold noodles, ramen, rice dishes and hot pots, snow peas are a fresh taste, especially when you grow them yourself.
The young pea plant shoots are also often harvested for use raw in Japanese salads.
Best if you grow these on a trellis so they can climb up and you can save space. They can also be grown in a 5 gallon pail just like I did in this video but with shelling peas.
Soramame – broad beans
Another cool weather crop that you can start early.
It’s often boiled and served simply as an appetizer in Japanese restaurants or bars.
If dried, the beans can also be used in fried bean crackers (ikarimame) as a snack.
These also need to be supported on a trellis or between two sets of strings as I show in this video:
Hot Season Japanese Vegetables You Can Grow
Japanese summers are very hot! So veggies that can withstand the heat and thrive in 35C+/95F+ are popular.
Kabocha – summer squash
For a cooking pumpkin that has a sweet taste and a deep orange flesh, consider growing kabocha. It grows well in warm temperatures and is easily trellised as the vines can be prolific.
Used by the Japanese in both sweet and savoury dishes, it’s versatile.
You’ve likely had kabocha tempura at a Japanese restaurant, but in home cooking it’s often just simmered in a broth with soy sauce and sugar.
The seeds also make for a tasty roasted snack.
And kabocha will store for the long-term if washed and kept in a cool, dry location.
Again a plant that should be trellised. I created an A-frame trellis from my daughter’s old crib:
Kyuri – cucumber
Japanese cucumbers are very long and narrow, even more that the standard English cuke we’re used to buying.
They are often sliced and then combined with a light dressing of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice vinegar to make a crunchy, fresh-tasting side salad. Or they might be pickled lightly for use as a side dish or condiment.
They need lots of heat, so will grow well in hot summers or in a greenhouse. They need lots of water to grow.
And again ideally they need to be trellised to keep the long nukes hanging down and out of the soil.
Nasu – eggplant
Like with kyuri, Japanese eggplants are long and narrow.
Nasu is often used in mabu tofu, but also can be stewed, grilled or prepared as tempura.
They need lots of heat to grow, although if they get too hot, pollination stops. They can benefit from hand pollinating, especially in a greenhouse.
They grow especially well in 5-gallon black pots that help to retain heat around the roots.
Shishito – peppers
It’s a pepper that is relatively mild in flavour and heat. Japanese typically don’t cook very spicy foods.
Interestingly 1 in 10 shishito peppers could be very spicy. So it might help to taste a small piece if you don’t want a super-spicy dish!
Typically they are grilled, fried or stewed in a soy and dashi sauce.
As with nasu, they need lots of heat to grow well.
When picked if still green, they will ripen and turn red.
Edamame – soybeans
Soybeans are most often used in making many different prepared foods such as tofu, soy milk, soya sauce, natto and miso.
However they’re also boiled in salted water and eaten plain as an appetizer or side dish.
Typically easy to grow as long as you have relatively hot summers.
Keep in mind though that each plant will only have a few pods on it, so you do need a few dozen plants for a few meals. I usually plant at least a 3’x3’ area full, with the plants spaced about 9 per square foot.
I’ll now cover a couple of Japanese herbs. While the Japanese don’t use that many herbs in their cooking as elsewhere in the world, there are some that are used in some dishes to flavour them.
Shiso – Japanese basil
Both green and red varieties exist, but you’re more likely to find the green variety in a store as it’s used in salads, cold noodles, tempura and even used as a wrapper for rice.
Whereas the red one really needs to be grown yourself if you want to use it fresh as it’s commonly only found in prepared foods.
Grown similar to other varieties of basil, it benefits from warm weather.
And pinch it out frequently, not only to use the leaves in cooking and salads, but also to produce more bushy plants.
Mitsuba – Japanese parsley
Both leaves and stems are used in fish dishes salads, and soups. Very common also to use in sukiyaki in autumn and winter.
Seeds are sometimes a bit more difficult to germinate, so keeping them moist while germinating is key.
Make sure to harvest the younger leaves and stems for best flavour and tenderness.
Late Summer Japanese Vegetables
Late summer for the Japanese gives them a reprieve from the hot months of summer. And there are a few Japanese veggies that do better in the cooler temperatures. Some I already mentioned in the first section under Cool Season Vegetables.
Daikon – radish
This popular radish, found in everything from miso soup to pickled side dishes to stewed dishes.
Diakon needs the heat at the end of the summer to grow, but once it starts to mature, needs cooler weather otherwise it will bolt and set seed.
Leaves can also be eaten. Diakon needs loose soil to produce long straight roots.
Hakusai – Chinese or Napa cabbage
This cabbage can be used in many dishes, either raw or cooked. It’s often the ingredient in gyoza, Japanese dumplings and used in sukiyaki.
Again a plant that prefers cooler temperatures to avoid bolting, it’s best to sow it in late summer so that at maturity at about 60-80 days the temperature will be cooler.
It needs frequent watering so it grows fast. We’ve found that usually it doesn’t form a tight head if it doesn’t get enough water or if the temperature is still too high when it matures.
Since it’s a brassica, be sure to add lime if you have acidic soil. And use row cover to keep pests off the leaves. It’s also susceptible to slug and snail damage, another reason not to plant in spring when they are more prevalent.
Medicinal Japanese Vegetable Turned Culinary
The last veggie I’ll include is a bit of a strange one that has become popular as a culinary veggie in Japan after being used for medicinal purposes in China.
Gobo – edible burdock
Gobo is a long brown root that is used as a flavour enhancer in many dishes, especially stews and stir-fries. It’s also used as the main ingredient alongside carrots in kinpira.
Because of the long root, it needs to grow in loose soil. Often grown in 5-gallon buckets as that gives them enough length to really stretch down.
Gobo can become invasive if you let it seed, so remove flower heads before they set seed.
Harvest when the tops die down after the first frost.
So I hope that inspires you to try some of the above Japanese vegetables you can grow at home.
Some other popular Japanese vegetables I haven’t included are shiitake mushrooms (which I plan to grow at home eventually), ginger (I am trying to grow in a container) and bamboo shoots.
Information in this article compiled from this great book: Our Edible Roots by Tonari Gumi (a volunteer Japanese organization in Vancouver, BC) – order here: https://www.westcoastseeds.com/products/our-edible-roots