Wordcatcher Tales: Moroheiya tempura, Henohenomoheji sake

A few weeks ago, I came across a food item in my local Japanese grocery store that was new to me. The package of deep-fried, dark green leaves was labeled “moroheya tenpura.” Of course, I couldn’t resist trying some. The leaves were crispy and oily, stuck together by their own slime, rather than by tempura batter. They tasted oily, slightly bitter—and very healthy!

Moroheya (mallow leaves) tempura packaged for sale at Nijiya Market

The Japanese name for the leaves is usually written in katakana as モロヘイヤ moroheiya, ultimately from Arabic muluxīya but probably via some non-Arabic intermediary language with /o/ in place of /u/. The leaves of jute plants (Corchorus spp.), also known as mallow leaves, are widely eaten wherever jute is grown between West Africa and South Asia, and there are many different transliterations of its name in local varieties of Arabic: mulukhiyah, molokhia, mulukhiyya, malukhiyah, mloukhiya. It now shows up in Japanese cuisine, where it’s valued for its healthy slimy quality as well as high vitamin content.

The Japanese name for the plant (Corchorus olitorius) is shima-tsuna-so (縞綱麻 ‘stripe-rope-hemp’), also called タイワンツナソ Taiwan tsunaso ‘Taiwan rope plant/hemp’, ナガミツナソ nagami tsunaso (possibly) ‘long-body rope plant/hemp’, or simply ジュート juuto ‘jute’.

Henohenomoheji junmai sake from Akishika Brewery in Osaka-fu served at Kyoukamo Restaurant, Nagoya

In Nagoya this past summer, we made a return visit to the exquisite Kyoukamo Restaurant (京加茂), famous thereabouts for its Kyoto-style kaiseki cuisine. You can see photos of what we ate and drank starting here.

Our affable hosts served two award-winning sakes this year, both in the West (Kansai and western Japan) division, where they were ranked like sumo rikishi. The first won the Ōzeki (‘champion’) prize and the second won the Yokozuna (‘grand champion’) prize. The latter had such a floral/herbal nose that it resembled an Alsatian Gewürtztraminer. When I asked our hostess for the name of the sake, she said, Henohenomoheji. I asked, “What is that supposed to mean?!” So she showed me the magazine page reproduced here, where the hiragana characters of the name sketch a human face beneath a triangular hat. Each への pair forms an eyebrow and eye, the も forms a nose, へforms downturned lips, and じ delineates the cheeks and chin.

The brewery is Akishika (秋鹿 ‘Autumn Deer’) of Nose Township, Toyono County, where Osaka Prefecture intrudes between Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures. The restaurant owner gave me their address and I decided on a whim to pay the brewer a visit on the last day of our trip, when I had a day to kill on my own and a still-valid JR railpass.

Well, it turned out to be well off the JR lines. I hopped a bullet train to Shin-Osaka, took an express to JR Amagasaki, took the JR Fukuchiyama Line uphill to Kawanishi-Ikeda, then walked over to Kawanishi-Noseguchi, the downhill terminus of the little Nose Dentetsu (owned by Hankyu Railway), where a lady at the ticket window said I would have to take a bus from the rail terminus at Myōkenguchi.

Myōkenguchi, the entrance to Mount Myōken (妙見山), consisted of little more than a parking lot, a post office, and a combination restaurant and souvenir shop. A bus was due to arrive soon, but it would take 30 minutes to get to the brewery and only ran once an hour. So, as a trophy for my misbegotten adventure, I bought a big bottle of Akishika-brand sake from the very friendly shop owners, who threw in a couple of empty バンビカップ ‘Bambi cup’ glasses as souvenirs, saying they were their bestsellers and not widely available. (I later discovered you can buy them online.) then I hopped the return train and transferred my way back toward Nagoya, where I left the sake bottle and cups at our hotel’s front desk, for them to pass on to the friend who treated us to that wonderful kaiseki dinner at Kyoukamo.

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1 Comment

Filed under food, Japan, language

One response to “Wordcatcher Tales: Moroheiya tempura, Henohenomoheji sake

  1. No need to postulate a non-Arabic intermediary language; in Egyptian Arabic short /u/ sounds like /o/, so that the word is often written molokhia (e.g.).

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