Kuzuyu (葛湯) – a Traditional Japanese Hot Beverage for Warming the Body and Preventing Colds
By Avi Landau
In the United States, especially in the South, where it has proliferated most vigorously, KUDZU, the name of a perennial herbaceous climbing vine of the pea family, has come to represent all that can be bad in an invasive species (it was first introduced to the North America Continent by the Japanese delegation to the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia) : all-consuming, relentless destroyer of native beauty, menacing – and all but unstoppable (though this notion is powerfully disputed in this first-rate Smithsonian Magazine article by Bill Finch)
In Japan, however, this very same plant, the one whose vines spread out in every direction overwhelming untended fields, climbing trees and utility poles (or even abandoned cars and houses) has since days of yore enjoyed an excellent reputation!
Included among the beloved SEVEN GRASSES OF AUTUMN (AKI NO NANA GUSA), the kudzu, its flowers, leaves, the fields covered with it… even the acts of diggings its roots or bleaching it, etc. have been important motifs in Japanese poetry*, used for more than a thousand years to express a wide range of emotions and moods (as can be found in countless poems – while more are written each year).
And on a more practical level, the kudzu plant, every part of it, was important for people at all different levels of society. The leaves provided a nutritious and abundant feed for horses and oxen. Its vines were used for weaving baskets and other crafts. Its roots fibers were used to make working-clothes and other garments. And most importantly, its root STARCH was used for making various traditional foods and medicines ( in fact it is a major ingredient in Kakkonto, which is still one of Japan`s most popular herbal cold medicines, whose name is written 葛根湯 – meaning: kudzu root hot-water).
So as you can see – there was no part of the kudzu plant that was not used!
In today’s Japan, with its super-abundance of foodstuffs, textiles and medicines, kudzu is certainly not as important in people people’s lives as it used to be (though it still is one of the SEVEN GRASSES OF AUTUMN and continues to be written of in poetry) but one way you might like to experience KUDZU in a traditional Japanese way (besides the various kudzu-based sweets available at specialty confectioners and restaurants) is by drinking KUZUYU (葛湯) , a hot, pasty, semi-translucent beverage made by thickening some hot water with kudzu starch (its name is written with the characters for KUDZU – 葛 – and HOT WATER – 湯 -) Drinking it is one of the classic Japanese ways of keeping warm on a cold winter’s night (though I can think of a much better one!) and of staving off a cold that you might feel coming on.
Just ask your Japanese friends of a certain age. I’m sure they have memories of sitting at the heated table (kotatsu), puffing on their tea bowls filled with KUZUYU so that the steamy paste didn’t burn their tongues – yet worried that by waiting too long it would get too cool. With that unique consistency you have a limited window of opportunity if you want to drink it when it’s just right!
You can buy cheap, ready-made packets of flavored “instant kuzuyu” – or you can spend a little more money (and effort) to buy some pure kudzu starch (HONKUZU, 本葛) and make up a batch by yourself. Remember, the pure kudzu starch itself has no real taste, so you can season it as you like with salt, sugar, honey, grated-ginger or yuzu (citron) juice.
Here is an IDEA FOR A RECIPE.
For one serving, you’ll need a tablespoon of HON KUZU (pure kudzu starch), 200 cc of water, a pinch of salt and ginger, to taste.
The HON KUZU is clumpy, so when you put a tablespoon of it in a saucepan and add the water, break up the clumps with a spatula and stir to the starch is dissolved.
Turn on a medium flame and stir continuously.
As the liquid gets hotter and starts to boil (while you are still stirring) it will get thicker and pastier. After a few bubbly seconds, remove from heat and add pinch of salt – and if you like, sugar, to taste.
Then pour into your cup or bowl.
Top with grated ginger. (for a more “modern” kuzuyu add honey, yuzu juice… or anything you can thing of that might work!)
Perfect for warming yourself or when you feel like you’re coming down with something (as a traditional home remedy).
As you’re sipping it down (being careful not to scald your tongue or lips) and start feeling the warmth spreading through your chest, try to remember that what your drinking comes from those “monstrous” kudzu vines that you are always trying to keep out of your garden… and might start looking at them in a different way (while you are thrashing and pulling at them!)
* In his article for Smithsonian Magazine (which I strongly recommend reading) Bill Finch tells us how Southern writers use kudzu in their landscape descriptions to indicate a Southern setting or atmosphere, he also tells us how Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) uses kudzu as a(n excellent) metaphor for racism in the South – something that must constantly be cut away at and rooted out – or else it will grow out and eventually overwhelm everything.
The Japanese poets use references to kudzu in a very different way – or more precisely many very different ways.
Using the word kuzu (kudzu) just at is, indicated the leaves of the plant. In ancient times Japanese of a poetical bent appreciated the fact that the back-sides of the broad, deeply green leaves were much lighter in color – almost white, than the fronts. They enjoyed the wave-like patterns that were created when breezes blew over fields, walls or canopies of kudzu rustling the leaves. This was called URA MI (裏見) – literally: literally looking at the back sides – which is also a homonym for URAMI (恨み) , which means: resentment, bitterness, grievance, etc.
Thus one way to express these feelings is by using the word kuzu. Here is an example from the 8th century collection of poems called the Manyoshu:
WAGA YADO NO KUZUHA HI NI KENI IRO TSUKINU KIMASANU KIMI WA NANI GOKORO SOMO (Book 10 Poem 2955)
which I translate hastily as : The kuzu leaves in my garden grows greener by the day – and you who do not come… ever… what is it that YOU are feeling? (translated by Avi Landau)
But when the poet uses kuzu no hana, he or she is referring to the kudzu flowers, which bloom in autumn (late August and September) and came be used to express a sense of pathos over the passing nature of all things.
And when the poet wants to express vast spaces, like those taken over by uncontrolled kudzu growth, he or she can use MAKUZUHARA (真葛原)
To be continued….