Culinary capers in Japan

Naganegi, Long Onion

Naganegi (長ねぎ)
September 9th, 2010 at 11:04

A really incorrigible staple in Japanese cooking is the naganegi, or long onion. It’s often translated as “leek” in English, but the two vegetables don’t quite make it as twins, in either looks or flavor. Naganegi exist in a special realm somewhere between leeks, regular round yellow onions, and the white part of scallions. If pressed for a substitute, the white part of a “green onion” / “scallion” / occasional “shallot” is your best bet. A problem arises, however, when you need 10 or 12 cm of minced naganegi and have only puny scallions to work with. In this case, you’d be doing yourself a favor to head to your local Asian grocer and see if they have any Japanese onions. In a dish that depends heavily on naganegi for flavor, there’s really no good substitute. If you’re also blasting away with ginger, garlic, and hot peppers, you’re a little freer to try out leeks and scallions.

So let’s say that you’ve gotten your hands on some Japanese long onions. Now what to do with them? There really aren’t any strict rules about preparing naganegi, but I’ve found there is an efficient way that most chefs in Japan use when they need a julienne or mince. This method revolves around the idea that the thin outer layers contain the vegetable’s best aromatic properties, while the more moisture-laden core is not as good for sautéing. I can’t say for sure if this is true, but a chef friend of mine says he always tosses the core into his vegetable stock pot (along with scraps of carrot, daikon, potato, and celery) rather than use them along with the outer layers. I also have the impression from my own experience that excluding the core from sautés and stir fries results in a clearer flavor.

First remove the tip with the root protrusions, and then chop off the green leafy top. Now make an incision down the length of the onion, cutting only about 1/4 – 1/3 of the way toward the center.

With this cut complete, you can remove the core of the onion. It may be attached to the innermost layer in places. Just tear it apart and keep the thin layers together. I’ve also found that after a couple of days, even in the refrigerator, the core of naganegi onions seem to expand, leaving a hollow space in the center. For the best flavor and most usable onion matter, use your onion as soon as possible.

With the core removed, lay the onion out flat on a cutting board. Cut it into length about 5 or 6 cm long, or roughly the width of your index, ring, and middle fingers together.

Stack the sheets of onion as high as you think manageable. I’ve found that I can julienne a stack produced from a single naganegi, but not much more than that without risking a slip and trip to the emergency room. The undersides of the onion sheets sometimes have a slippery film or skin that can slide around when you least expect it.

Chop the sheets with your knife parallel to the grain of the onion. You might be able to accomplish this with the standard rocking cut, where the knife tip stays against the cutting board and the cuts are made around that pivot. But for a tall stack of onion sheets I like the Japanese style push cut, where the knife blade stays parallel to the cutting board, coming up and down at a diagonal. Do whatever you feel comfortable with, though.

At this point, the naganegi julienne is good as a garnish for just about anything from steaks to salad. If you’re going to eat it raw, it’s a good idea to refresh the strips in a bowl of cold water first, and then drain them well on a paper towel. This will remove any harsh or acrid raw taste.

If you need a mince, just flip the julienne strips around and get your mince on. This technique results in a really fine and even mince that, when sautéed or mixed into meat patties, lends a really unique, sweet onion flavor.

The core can be chopped and used in soups or vegetable stock. If you plan on making Japanese braised pork belly or some other long-simmered meat dish in the near future, the leafy green bit is nice to hang on to and throw into the pot as well.

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