This leafy green is Ashitaba, the Tomorrow Leaf, an endemic plant of Hachijojima, an island about 180 miles off the coast of Japan. We had the opportunity to try ashitaba (pronounced ăsh’-ta-bah) in several dishes when we recently journeyed to Hachijojima to scuba dive. During our tour around the island, we saw the plant growing everywhere – in cultivated patches, small gardens and even the yard of the small coffee house we visited. I knew it had to have a special meaning because Kotaro, our host on Hachijojima, called me over to the display of packaged leaves during our provisioning stop at the supermarket. “Tomorrow leaf,” he said. “Very good.”
Ashita means “tomorrow” in Japanese and Kotaro explained that when leaves are harvested, they grow back quickly – “by tomorrow”. At one of our stops, he pointed out the lighter growth that can be seen in the center of this image, explaining that this is the new growth from the day before:
Ashitaba’s scientific name is Angelica keiskei. It is a medicinal herb, high in anti-oxidants and vitamins, with purported medicinal properties that promote longevity, stamina and all-round good health. Though it has been cultivated in several other places, including mainland Japan and Korea, the rich volcanic soil combined with the Kuroshio current that warms the island are said to give it chemical properties that are only found in the native-grown plant from Hachijojima.
After our dives each day, we went back to the dive shop for a break to change camera batteries and have tea. One morning, Kotaro’s wife stopped by with a freshly baked ashitaba cheesecake she made especially for us. It was delicious, delicately colored green from the ashitaba but with no hint of a vegetable flavor:
During a stop for coffee, we tried the ashitaba scones – yummy – especially with cream and jam:
On our way back to Tokyo, we had lunch at the Hachijojima Airport. This was fun for our group, most of whom had never experienced choosing a meal from the wax replicas in the window and purchasing the meal ticket from a vending machine. Yan and Richard opted for cold soba made with ashitaba leaf. Kotaro and Ume-chan taught them the proper way to eat the soba – with plenty of slurping.
The udon, served with an assortment of ashitaba and other greens was my favorite dish (well, after the cheesecake, of course):
Yan reported that the cold ashitaba soba was delicious too:
An online search will reveal many sites with much information about ashitaba and while I cannot say I’m a believer in the medicinal properties, our experience tasting several dishes was interesting. We’re planning to return to Hachijojima to dive again and I’m looking forward to trying more ashitaba/tomorrow leaf dishes.