Image captured from the official website of Reviving Recipes (http://www.y-recipe.net/)

Extinction, I used to think, was a threat faced by animals endangered by excessive hunting and climate change. But I was reminded by Reviving Recipes, a documentary shown at HKIFF, that many plants are also silently vanishing. Among them are “heirloom” vegetables, whose extinction is lovingly fought against by farmers, scholars, chefs and ordinary folks in Japan’s Yamagata Prefecture.

In successive episodes, the film tells the stories of heirloom veggies on the verge of disappearance. Once grown to help poor farmers survive the winter at times of crop failure, Fujisawa turnips, whose irregular shapes do not quite fit standard shipment boxes, have been forsaken for another kind of turnip more preferred by the market. Mrs Watarai, an 85-year-old grandma, is nonetheless insistent on preserving the species. The turnip is kept alive in a small patch in her garden. Its flavour is passed on as she teaches her grandchild to love its pungent taste. The substance that gives rise to this, according to the film, prevents cancer.

With seeds preserved by Mrs Watarai, local farmers managed to get Fujisawa turnips back on the field. They do this with the traditional slash-and-burn method. After trees are felled, leftover branches are carefully laid over the same plot for soil regeneration through burning. Fire kills harmful insects, making the use of chemical insecticides unnecessary. Natural fertilizers, such as nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potassium, are also produced in the process. Vegetables grown on such soil are exceptionally crunchy and juicy, and 100% organic.

Besides Mrs Watarai and the mountain farmers, many others are also striving to preserve the veggie heritage. Two devotees are Professor Egashira, a researcher on heirloom crops at Yamagata University, and Chef Okuda, who fuses Italian recipes with local produce, thus creating demand for continual farming of waning species. In one episode, the two are in search of the legendary Hoya turnip, thought to have become extinct for decades. To their surprise, the long-lost treasure was delivered to Okuda’s restaurant by a local farmer one day. Okuda immediately called Prof Egashira, who dashed over that very night to share an important moment of resurrection.

What has been saved in these endeavours is a lot more than turnips. Flowing in the juice of these revived vegetables are unique tastes that have been savoured across time, nourished generations and formed part of history. Their unobtrusive growth in the eco-system resists market-driven monoculture and demonstrates a harmonious way for different life forms to co-exist on earth.

Near the end, the film shows an old farmer teaching Haruki, a young man just licensed to farm heirloom produce, how to properly plant cedar trees. Haruki asks how long it takes for the trees to become useful. “30 years,” answered the old farmer. “Then we will not be the ones cutting them?” The old farmer nods, as if this is the simplest truth. The film then moves on to a close-up of a pollinating bee, and lets the audience go home with a full screen of seeds.

26 March 2012

Want some green food for thought? One more screening on 2 April.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZDzsRET-i8

Written by: Stephanie Cheung

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