There’s an onion that stands out from the crowd—and you’ll nd it in the Japanese desert, no less.
What comes to mind when you think of onions? Perhaps it’s the way your eyes tear up over the cutting board, or how your mouth waters when you hear that sweet, sizzling sound of the sauté. Maybe you’re picturing that deliciously crispy, crunchy blooming onion at your local family restaurant. But have you experienced the fresh, comparatively mild taste of rakkyo?
Called many names—including Chinese onion, Japanese scallion and even glittering chive— rakkyo (pronounced “rah-kyo”) is a staple side dish in Japanese cuisine but isn’t especially well known outside of Asia. Light and refreshing with a hint of sweetness, a small serving of this pickled onion is often used as a way of balancing out the more intense flavours of other dishes. It is most often paired with Japanese curry, adding a bit of crunchy freshness in between bites of the rich, creamy main course.
Native to China and naturalized in Japan and Korea, rakkyo hails from the onion family which also includes garlic, leeks and shallots. Satisfying with a hint of tartness, it lends itself to a variety of Asian cuisines—particularly Thai and Indonesian—and is traditionally served during Vietnamese New Year celebrations. In addition to its pleasing flavour, this bulbous veggie offers nutritional benefits to the hungry snacker. Believed during the Edo period to contain medicinal properties, rakkyo is now known for its ability to aid in digestion and the body’s absorption of vitamins.
So, having a sense of the tasty goodness of rakkyo and in all probability anxious to try it, you’ll have to keep an eye out for tsukemono (Japanese-style pickled vegetables) the next time you visit your local Asian supermarket. Though rakkyo grows as a dense green plant with tiny pink owers, it resembles peeled cloves of garlic by the time it’s store-ready. That’s because after the bulbs have been plucked from the ground they are washed, dried, chopped and typically pickled in a mixture of salt, sugar, rice vinegar and chili pepper akes for two weeks to a month. Once opened, containers of rakkyo are best kept refrigerated and enjoyed within a couple of weeks. Pair with Japanese curry as mentioned, or enjoy as a snack with a beer or a glass of sake at the end of a long day.
If you’re a fan of rakkyo and planning a trip to Japan, it’s worth a visit to a unique natural landscape associated with the harvesting of these Chinese onions: the Tottori Sand Dunes. Because rakkyo prefers dry soil and direct sunlight, a desert-like setting provides optimal farming conditions. Spanning over 30 kilometres and dating back 100,000 years, the sand dunes in Tottori Prefecture are quite the sight to behold and attract roughly two million tourists each year. So before heading out to dinner to try some rakkyo in the region, snap a selfie at the dunes— your friends are sure to be impressed that you managed to find the desert in Japan!