Planting a Legacy: Kitazawa Seed Company

In March I attended a wonderful talk from Jim Ryugo sharing the story of the Kitazawa Seed Company. I was reminded to jot down my notes after watching the following video from AJ+, highlighting the legacy of Japanese-American famers in California and beyond:


Kitazawa Seed Company was started in 1917 by  Gijiu Kitazawa and his brother, who had learned their seed skills in Japan. When they split, Gijiu took the seed company and opened a storefront in downtown San Jose, while his brother took the nursery. Gijiu was moved to the Heart Mountain concentration camp when WWII broke out, and forced to abandon the business.

As mentioned in the video above, Japanese workers continued to farm even after they were incarcerated, growing food and keeping the camps running.  In the first year of the war, Heart Mountain produced about 1,000 tons of produce. In 1944, they produced over 2500 tons of food.

After the war, many Japanese-American farmers were displaced from their former farmland and equipment. Gijiu was able to restart the seed business and continued to make the catalog. His daughter, Mai – who had just started at San Jose State when WWII broke out – then attended Oberlin to complete a degree in botany, then pursued a graduate degree in horticulture at Cornell, and then completed a masters in landscape architecture at UC Berkeley (her Wiki bio has more on her many accolades, among those being “the only woman around as a graduate student in Horticulture from 1947-49.)

Through the years, the Kitazawa Seed Catalog remained a key resource for rural customers who didn’t have readily available access to Asian vegetable seeds. The company changed hands twice, and moved headquarters to Oakland – currently Kitazawa Seed is now in under the operation of Jim Ryugo and his wife (I unfortunately did not catch her name).

In 2004,the Ryugo’s decided to supplement their traditional mail order catalog with a website of seed offerings, which has completely changed the game. They now receive inquiries from all over the world.



[Image description: Kitazawa seed packet containing Shiso seeds and illustration of shiso plant]

Seed Story Time

Jim regaled us with some fascinating history behind the company’s best seller, the shishito pepper, in addition to other veggies commonly used in Japanese cooking. The shishito is native to Peru, and has been used for 5 -6,000 years, reflecting the history of man and evolution. Capsaicin – the chemical compound found in the placenta of pepper seeds – evolved its ‘heat’ over time to protect plants from predation and nibbles from pesky rodents. Overtime, the shishito migrated through South America to Central America and the Caribbean, and gradually made it’s way to Japan.

Given the isolated nature of the island nation, most other veggies made their way from other parts of the world, and there are few native types of vegetables, including mitsuba. Additionally, a history of feudal land ownership, with limited trading between provinces, led to each province growing produce tailored to each region and its palate.

Shingiku – edible chrysanthemum, bunching onions; also known as Tong Ho for Chinese speakers. Delicious in hot pot.

Perilla – found across the world, called Shiso in Japan.

Red shiso – important food colorant, often used for umeboshi


[Image description: Jim holding a large mustard leaf and dropping knowledge!]

I feel lucky that San Jose is home to a part of the Kitazawa Seed story, much appreciation to the organizers who put together this event to celebrate the resilience and legacy of  Japanese-American farmers.

$422 Teapot!

I went to Marukai Market with my parents today and was quite taken with a $422 cast-iron teapot they were selling in the kitchenware aisle (among other wonderful things: a tiny miso whisk, a panda onigiri set complete with a panda silhouette nori punch, a homemade mochi maker). It was locked in a glass case and you needed to call an associate if you wanted to purchase it.

By Tanaka Juuyoh, originally uploaded to Flickr

Hanging Tetsubin kettle, by Tanaka Juuyoh, originally uploaded to Flickr

The sign posted next to it claimed that water boiled in the Tetsubin (Japanese Cast Iron Kettle) gives tea a more mellow, sweet taste. Here’s more from a website called Hojo Tea:

The chemical structure of water is part of the key that explains how water changes when boiled in a Tetsubin. The water molecule (H2O) consists of two elements, hydrogen (+)and oxygen (-).These elements carry both positive and negative electrical affinities or charges, just like a magnet. This is called dipole in Chemistry. These equal electrical charges, that exist on both oxygen and hydrogen, cause water molecules to constantly spin when in a liquid state . If they stop spinning, then water will become ice. Variable intensity of hydrogen bond allows the flavor and texture of water to change depending on the instrument utilized when boiling it.  For example, if there is no mineral content in the instrument utilized to boil the water, for instance, a sterile glass beaker, the positive and negative charges of the elements of the water molecule  will simply be attracted to each other and form their network or molecule through their hydrogen bonds. These bonds give water it’s characteristic viscosity and surface tension, but a plain or flat flavor. However, when minerals exist in the instrument utilized to boil the water, for example, the Tetsubin, the elements of the water molecule are attracted to the minerals from the Tetsubin instead. In fact, the affinity of the water molecule with certain types of minerals in the Tetsubin is stronger than those existing between the water molecules themselves. Minerals and water molecules form  more stable bonds. This stronger attraction between minerals and water molecules also increases the viscosity and surface tension of the water. This effects our perception of the flavor and texture of the water itself, and most importantly, our taste buds can feel more taste, and a taste that stays longer in our mouths thanks to the stronger attraction of these hydrogen bonds and the metal ions of the Tetsubin.
The presence of minerals also affects the depth of the water’s flavor. Minerals attract volatile flavor producing substances and form stronger hydrogen bonds in water. The stronger these hydrogen bonds are, the slower the evaporation of such volatile substances becomes. As the result of slow evaporation, we feel a much deeper and longer lasting flavor in our mouth.

More here.

Very interesting! I’ve only used these heavy kettles in a few restaurants. They do keep the water extremely hot for long periods of time.



Unified Theory of Deliciousness

As a sometimes haphazard cook, I’m always intrigued by blogs (such as Serious Eats’ Food Lab) that take an explicitly scientific and methodical approach to the kitchen. In the same vein, I was excited to read Wired‘s August cover story:

august 2016 cover

David Chang’s Unified Theory of Deliciousness rests on the idea of strange loops, the interplay between the familiar and unfamiliar that are essential to creating mind-blowing dishes.

“Most people won’t ever notice this sensation; they’ll just appreciate that the food tastes good. But under the surface, the saltiness paradox has a very powerful effect, because it makes you very aware of what you’re eating and your own reaction to it. It nags at you, and it keeps you in the moment, thinking about what you’re tasting. And that’s what makes it delicious….

We hit the middle of a Venn diagram, creating something that incorporated enough elements of both mapo tofu and Bolognese that it could evoke both of them, while being neither one precisely.”

My favorite part of the article: Chang recounting three Korean dudes crying over a chicken-and-dumpling dish, reminiscent of Korean sujebi:

It’s like that scene in Ratatouille when the critic eats a fancy version of the titular dish and gets whisked back to the elemental version of his childhood.


Keirnan Monaghan & Theo Vamvounakis

chang diagram 1  chang_diagrams1 (1)

Also, check out these cool little diagrams illustrating that mind/mouth discrepancy.



Multimedia Project: SF Mobile Food + Tinkering Around with MapBox Studio

I knew that I wanted to play around with a mapping application for the last project in my writing seminar, so I started with TileMill. I was then led to the vortex that is MapBox Studio, and have compiled some of the lessons I’ve learned through this app:

  1. Finding Data 

I had originally wanted to make a map with information on Isla Vista, the small college town I live in. Finding large sets of data points for IV was rather unfruitful, so I moved on to a bigger city.

Increasing numbers of cities and counties are providing open data resources for developers, analysts, and residents. Socrata is a pretty cool platform that has partnerships with San Francisco, New York City, and Seattle, just to name a few cities.

From SF Open Data, I found a CSV of all the Mobile Food Permits, in order to map out food trucks/carts in the city and different neighborhoods. I later realized that many of these points were not the actual locations of the food trucks/carts, but the residential homes of the people who applied for the permits. So I had to double-check the business addresses, and reconfigure the location coordinates. Luckily, there’s a resource for that.

In addition to the address flub, there was the issue of revolving schedules – many of these trucks would be at food truck events like Off the Grid and SoMa Street Food on certain weekends, or at different locations on different days.

In conclusion – pick your data set wisely!

2TileMill to MapBox Classic to MapBox Studio.

I found out that TileMill was no longer in active development/was replaced by MapBox Studio. If you’ve taken any introductory GIS courses, the MapBox interface feels very similar with layer options. You can upload your own data sets (in this case, I uploaded my Mobile Permits CSV) to your account in order to reference it at any time.

I ultimately eschewed both TileMill and MapBox Studio to work with MapBox Editor – it was the most user-friendly and straightforward out of the options. You’re able to toggle between data, saved projects, and styles, while adding pop-up information to data points. I wanted to include each truck/cart’s address, schedule, and featured menu items.

I would recommend using MapBox Studio for more static data sets – the MapBox site has some example projects in their gallery, which includes a visualization of trees in New York. You can add a small legend in MapBox Studio, but if you wanted to include more information for each data point, it can get cluttered easily.

3. Limits of Open Data Set 

While the Mobile Permits CSV file was a good starting point, the varied levels of online presence for each business played a big role in how much information I was able to provide. What I appreciate about this data set, in comparison to Yelp reviews, was that it included vendors from the high-profile trucks featured at SoMa Street Food and Off the Grid, to the family businesses with little to no web marketing.


Overall, I found MapBox to be a pretty user-friendly platform for my beginning adventures in mapping and data visualization. Excited to tinker around with it some more.