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Okawakame is variable in size, ranging from 4 to 13 centimeters in length and 5 to 10 centimeters in diameter, and the leaves generally have a cordate shape with curved, defined edges tapering to a distinct point on the non-stem end. The dark green, fleshy leaves are thick, averaging 3 to 4 millimeters, and are pliable with a slightly wavy appearance. The leaf's surface is smooth, hairless, and can be glossy or muted. It also has a light, rubbery texture with prominent veining extending through the center of the leaf. Okawakame can be consumed raw or cooked and has a succulent, fleshy, moist, and crisp consistency when fresh. Once cooked, the leaves develop a slippery, slimy, and chewy texture. Okawakame leaves emit a light, green, and grassy scent. In fresh preparations, Okawakame has a vegetal, bitter, and sour taste, but when heated, the leaves become milder and more neutral in flavor.
Okawakame grows in both hemispheres and is generally found in the summer through early fall in temperate climates. In tropical climates, the leaves may be harvested multiple times throughout the year.
Okawakame, botanically classified as Anredera cordifolia, is a vining species belonging to the Basellaceae family. The species is native to South America and is a fast-growing climbing vine extending 9 to 20 meters in length, growing over other plants and trees. Okawakame is the Japanese name for the plant, but the species is known by several other regional names, including Maderia Vine, Heartleaf Madeira Vine, Rattan Notoginseng, and Mignonette Vine. Okawakame is primarily known as an aggressive species, and in some countries, the vines are labeled as invasive. Despite its fast-growing and sometimes destructive nature, Okawakame is treasured as a medicinal and culinary ingredient in Asia. The leaves and aerial roots are edible, and the leaves are the portion of the plant most associated with the name Okawakame in Japan. Okawakame can be eaten raw or cooked, and the heated leaves develop a distinctly slimy and slippery consistency widely favored in Japanese cuisine.
Okawakame is a source of calcium to build strong bones and teeth, copper to develop connective tissues, and vitamin A to maintain healthy organ functioning. The leaves also provide antioxidants to protect the cells against the damage caused by free radicals, magnesium to regulate nerves, iron to develop the protein hemoglobin for oxygen transport through the bloodstream, and other nutrients, including zinc, copper, vitamin E, and riboflavin. In natural medicines, Okawakame leaves can be crushed and topically applied to soothe rashes and other skin irritations. Other portions of the plant have also been used in Chinese medicine, treating back pains, bruises, and intestinal issues.
Okawakame has a vegetal and bitter taste suited for raw and cooked preparations. The leaves should be washed before use and can be consumed raw in salads or used as a spinach substitute. The leaves can also be torn or thinly sliced and used as an edible garnish or mixed with sauces as a fresh side dish. Okawakame is most popularly cooked to develop its famous slippery texture. The leaves are traditionally boiled and served with sauces and chile pastes, simmered into soups, or stir-fried into yakisoba. Okawakame can also be added to rice dishes, udon dishes, fried into tempura, or made into a paste and served with natto and eggs. The plant's roots are also edible and are prepared similarly to boiled potatoes. Okawakame pairs well with ponzu sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, mirin, and aromatics such as garlic, ginger, chile peppers, and onions. Fresh leaves should be immediately consumed for the best quality and flavor and will keep for 1 to 2 weeks when stored in a container in the refrigerator. Okawakame can also be frozen for up to one month.
Okawakame roughly translates to mean "land seaweed" or "seaweed from the ground" in Japanese. Despite its seaweed moniker, Okawakame is not the same as wakame, traditional Japanese seaweed from the ocean. Okawakame is a vining land plant that develops thick, fleshy leaves. The leaves were given their seaweed name from the slippery and slimy consistency they develop when cooked. Okawakame darkens in color and creates a texture similar to seaweed, allowing it to be used in recipes as a seaweed substitute. Okawakame is also known as Yunnan Hyakuyaku, meaning "Yunnan Hundred Medicines." This name references the species' introduction to Japan from China, as Yunnan is a province in southwestern China. It is said that Okawakame was initially introduced to Japan as a medicinal herb used to increase longevity and overall health, and the plant was once extensively used in Chinese medicine.
Okawakame is native to South America and has a large center of origin spanning across Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The vining species has been growing wild since ancient times and thrives in tropical, sub-tropical, and temperate climates. Historically Okawakame has been used as a medicinal and culinary species. The species was introduced over time to regions worldwide, including Europe in the early 19th century and Australia in the early 20th century. It was also planted in North America, Central America, Africa, and East Asia, where the species quickly naturalized and escaped cultivation. Okawakame is known for being an aggressive, fast-growing species, and in several countries worldwide, it has earned the title of a dangerous invasive species. In China, Okawakame is commercially cultivated in Yunnan, Fujian, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Guizhou, and Zhejiang, and the species is also produced in Taiwan. In Japan, Okawakame was transported from China and first planted in the Ryukyu Islands, notably in Okinawa. The species was later sent to Honshu, Japan's main island, and planted throughout Nakatsu City in the Oita Prefecture for large-scale commercial cultivation. Today Okawakame is grown worldwide and is used in various medicinal and culinary preparations. Each country values the plant in distinct ways, and in Japan, Okawakame is a beloved lightly cooked ingredient for its texture and nutritional properties. When in season, fresh Okawakame is harvested and sold through local markets and select retailers. It is also planted in home gardens for culinary use. The Okawakame featured in the photograph above was sourced through Takashimaya Shinjuku in Tokyo, Japan.