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Savoring the negi

An unusual onion from Pupukea

Rare is the cook who doesn't stock an allium or two in his or her food pantry. Garlic, shallots, leeks, cooking onions, sweet onions, chives, garlic chives and scallions are all alliums, encompassing a range of flavors from pungent to mild, acrid to sweet. A unique allium, grown on O'ahu, is the negi, a giant of a green onion.

Marketed as Tokyo negi onions, since they are popular in cooking in the Tokyo area, these long onions resemble leeks, except that leeks have flat green tops rather than the tubular tops of negi. The scientific name for negi is Allium fistulosum, and it is also known as the naga negi, welsh (no reference to Wales) onion or ciboule (French).

The negi is a giant of a green onion. Photo: Kent Hwang

The negi is as important to Japanese cuisine as the bulbous cooking onion is to French. The long white stem of this onion is used in nabemono, one-pot dishes such as sukiyaki, or in kushiyaki preparations, which are skewered and grilled over an open fire. The fragrance of the negi is distinctive, stronger than its younger cousin, the scallion, or what we call green onions. (Scallions are, in fact, technically younger than a green onion and show no beginnings of a bulb.) The negi adds a sharp onion flavor to dishes, but it can be deliciously sweet in a savory way.

It would seem that growing a negi is like growing a green onion, but it's not that simple. Püpükea farmer Ken Milner, possibly the only grower of negi onions in Hawai'i, starts his negi from seeds in trays under a shade cloth. The young plants are transplanted into the ground and, when they resemble pencils in size and have begun to send off shoots, they are transplanted again in single rows, affording them space to grow to giant scallion proportions. As they grow, the surrounding dirt is mounded around the roots, keeping them out of the sun, to produce white roots, while their tubular green leaves reach two to three feet into the air.

A couple of acres of grey-green leaves standing tall is a pretty sight. "I didn't know much about farming when I started growing negi," says Milner, a former commercial diver who now makes his living on terra firma. "I used to grow leeks, but Harold Teruya at Armstrong Produce encouraged me to grow these."

As the sturdy, thick negi are pulled one by one from the ground, they immediately release their pleasant, heady aroma. "The sandy soil, warm sunshine and warm ground temperature stimulate growth," says Milner. The negi are individually washed and trimmed before delivery to markets. He produces about 300 to 400 pounds of negi a month, along with kale, collards, oak leaf and romaine lettuces.

While nabemono and kushiyaki are the traditional uses for this onion of Siberian origin, soups and stews benefit from it, too. Negi sliced and sauteed in butter and served on top of a thick pork chop or a grilled steak is rather delicious. Or toss it in your next dish of pasta with some cheese-you'll find the negi to be quite addictive.

Tokyo Negi Onions are available at Marukai and Daiei stores. Milner is one of many vendors at the Saturday Farmers’ Market at Kapi‘olani Community College (7:30 to 11:30 a.m.) and the new Kailua Thursday Night Market (5 to 8 p.m.) beginning Sept. 9.
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,September

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