‘Nonstandard’ veggies find love in kitchens

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Executive chef Masatoshi Saito makes a savory cake using nonstandard vegetables at the Palace Hotel Tokyo in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

A ripe market for “nonstandard” vegetables has cropped up in Japan, as more consumers make use of ingredients that, in the past, would have been discarded for not conforming with the other perfectly sized produce that lines the nation’s shelves.

Some grocers now cater exclusively in “nonstandard” produce, and discerning diners have been taking note of the term’s appearance on the menus of restaurants even in luxury hotels.

The phenomenon can be seen as part of a larger battle against food loss that is being waged with an appetite for the humble nonstandard vegetable — bumps, blemishes and all.

6 mil. tons wasted

Across the moat from the Imperial Palace in the capital’s Marunouchi district, Masatoshi Saito showed off an array of peppers, lotus roots and asparagus in the kitchen of the Palace Hotel Tokyo, where he works as executive chef.

“They’re all different sizes, but they’re still fresh and taste great,” he said. “They’ll make a fantastic cake.”

In September, the hotel began selling a savory salted cake featuring lots of almond powder, Comte cheese and nearly 10 kinds of vegetables — some nonstandard.

The resulting cake, priced at ¥850, is delectably moist and salty. The variety of ingredients gives each bite a different taste and texture to enjoy.

But why use nonstandard vegetables?

“For [customers] to choose our hotel, it is essential we contribute to an environmentally friendly and sustainable society,” said Saito. “That’s why we chose to develop products that prominently feature ingredients [that help prevent] food loss.”

According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, an estimated 6 million tons of food are thrown away in Japan each year, a figure that does not include nonstandard ingredients that are discarded without ever being shipped.

“Reducing food loss is an urgent issue, and public-private efforts are necessary to solve it,” said Manabu Kishida, an official with the ministry’s food loss and recycling countermeasure office. “As momentum for social engagement grows, businesses have also been stepping up their efforts.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nonstandard vegetables are a specialty of supermarket Zenei Seika-ten.

Armani Ristorante, a restaurant in the Ginza district of Tokyo run by luxury brand Giorgio Armani, served a limited-run course menu featuring food loss ingredients from March to October.

The ¥10,000 meal included a caprese salad made with tomatoes of varying sizes and a dessert made from melons with blemished skins. The course also featured kinmedai, a fish that has had trouble finding buyers since the pandemic hit.

The restaurant plans to continue using nonstandard ingredients in its regular menus going forward.

Both businesses said they support producers, by purchasing the nonstandard vegetables at prices on par with normal ingredients.

‘If they taste the same…’

Nonstandard produce has also taken root in households.

Curly cucumbers and petite potatoes sit outside Zenei Seika-ten, a supermarket in Nerima Ward, Tokyo. A signboard proclaims it to be a “nonstandard vegetable shop.”

“If the taste is the same, I don’t care about the shape,” said one 46-year-old woman.

Yuta Umebori is senior managing director of Kobayashi Green Farm, an agricultural corporation in Gunma Prefecture that wholesales nonstandard vegetables to the supermarket.

“Around 10% to 20% of vegetables harvested in the field used to be discarded because of their size and other reasons, so we’re grateful to get some income out of them,” he said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
From left, jars of vegetable paste, chocolate cookies made with sake lees and chips made from broccoli stems

Since this spring, the food delivery service Radish Boya has been selling nonstandard vegetables with unique names.

For example, “toddler leaf” refers to garland chrysanthemum that outgrew the name, “baby leaf.”

In October, the company launched a monthly delivery service for nonstandard fresh fish and other products.

Naoko Ogata, senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute, said: “We have a deeper understanding now of how items outside the standard range do not have any quality problems, and there is an awareness that consumption can be a way of contributing to society. For companies, it can be a way to show their attitudes toward environmental problems. We’ll likely see a greater variety of new products and services going forward.”

Even skins and seeds

“Upcycling,” a movement to transform discarded items into goods with higher added value, has been developing new offshoots in the food sector.

Some companies have even tapped the “inedible” parts of vegetables — such as the skins and seeds — for use in their products.

In July, food delivery service Oisix ra daichi Inc. released a line of snack chips (¥429) made from deep-fried broccoli stems and radish peels that were scrapped by factories.

The company also takes the plums used to make umeshu wine and sells them as dried fruit.

King Brewing Co. powders the leftover sake lees from the production of mirin and uses the powder to make chocolate cookies (¥1,836) and other sweets, sold under the brand name Oryzae Joy.

In 2019, Mizkan Holdings Co. created the brand Zenb, which makes the most of whole vegetable skins, cores, seeds and other scrap parts. One such product is Zenb Paste, which is made with vegetables such as corn, peppers and olive oil and retails for ¥1,620.