In 1917, the year the United States entered the War to End All Wars, Gijiu Kitazawa started a seed company from a storefront and warehouse in San Jose. A longtime seed man in Japan, he had connections with growers for Asian specialty seeds, and he offered these seeds along with other internationally sourced varieties. Kitazawa's catalog was undeniably exotic, carrying impossible-to-find Japanese vegetables. The seeds, mostly sold to Japanese Americans throughout Northern California and Oregon, were packaged in manila envelopes printed with forest-green ink — a look that the company, now headquartered in Oakland, retains in its packets and catalog, which is devoid of the near pornographic photos of buxom tomatoes and winking melons that grace other companies' offerings.
During World War II, the business shuttered as Kitazawa, his family, and most of his customers were sent to internment camps. After his release in 1945, Kitazawa restarted the operation, staying in the Bay Area. But many of his customers, having lost their family homes and land, relocated, so Kitazawa Seeds began shipping across the country.
Half a century later, the Internet created another revolution, and Kitazawa Seed Company (PO Box 13220, 595-1188, KitazawaSeed.com) the oldest purveyor of Asian seeds in the nation, now ships seeds around the globe. Co-owner (with Jim Ryugo) Maya Shiroyama said that most seed still comes from Japan, though the company garners specialties from Taiwan, parts of China, Thailand, Korea, India, and Europe. Some seed is grown in the United States, those created specifically for an extremely demanding and discerning Japanese market.
Nothing says summer like sweet corn — and nothing says gourmet sweet corn like Mirai. Promises the Kitazawa catalog: "The corn that used to be available only in five-star Japanese restaurants can now be grown in your own garden." Mirai is a gorgeous plant, its shiny leaves almost black-green, its stalks graceful. The corn fills nicely and stays fresh on the plant, and the taste is superb, sweet without that cotton-candy stickiness, tender with tooth. Mirai is corn on the cob from heaven, and once you've tasted it, there's no going back.
After sampling other Kitazawa wares — lettuces, mizuna, cucumbers, mustard greens, Chinese cabbages, and more — one can assume confidently that if Kitazawa carries it, the taste is supreme. Sometimes, however, the bill of fare is surprising. Why, I asked Shiroyama, does Kitazawa carry commonly available green beans like Blue Lake and Kentucky Wonder along with more appropriate specimens such as soybeans Kouri and Lucky Lion and hyacinth beans Akahana Fujimame and Purple Moon? "Customer request," she answered. "We try to give our customers what they want, and they wanted green beans as well as sword beans and yard-long beans and the rest." Kitazawa now sells four green beans among their thirty-some bean seeds, including Kwintus, a European-sourced Romano that we're trying this year.
Kitazawa offers seven-variety garden packs, each chosen to supply the ingredients for a specific dish or cuisine. "We did it mostly to answer questions," Shiroyama explained. "People thought the catalog was overwhelming — we have over 250 varieties — and they weren't sure what to choose. We researched what customers wanted to do with the produce. We could see trends, such as the rapidly growing interest in open-pollinated varieties." The three most popular packs, priced at $22 each, are the Asian Herb Garden, Asian Salad Garden, and Japanese Heirloom Garden, which contains such stalwarts as Kyoto Red carrot, Kamo eggplant, and evergreen Japanese bunching onion (which does double duty as an ornamental).
Many of Kitazawa's customers are commercial farmers in the Central Valley, Oregon, and across the country. "We sell quite a bit in the Central Valley," Shiroyama says. "The climate is perfect for cucumbers, kabocha squash, daikon, yard-long beans. Farmers don't bat an eye at paying for high-quality seed. They may scrimp on other things, but they realize they get a 99 percent germination rate from us." Most commercial growers stick with hybrids. "They want treated seed and high performance," she continued. "Home gardeners and organic growers seek organic, untreated seed, even though that might interfere with germination. The majority of our catalog is open-pollinated. We also export US-grown seed all over. It's important to support US agriculture. Globalization isn't just one way. US agriculture is at the heart of our food supply." She estimates that about 40 percent of their sales are to small commercial and home gardeners, many of whom buy via the web site. Larger growers and export fill out the rest.
Shiroyama said home gardening in the Bay Area took off when gas prices jumped a few years ago. "Times are tougher," she said. "People are growing vegetables for economic reasons. If people have yards, they figure they may as well put it into production. They sell excess in their offices and to friends. I'm glad for it because it shows that people are being resourceful."
I asked what the top-selling variety is, expecting her to name one of the kabochas or perhaps the lettuces. "Japanese cucumbers," she said without a hitch. "They're not in stores. Once you've eaten them, you know you want them." She said she has one customer in Virginia who orders seed for a group of friends to grow out each year. "They put up six hundred jars of Japanese cukes as bread-and-butter pickles to sell for their fall church bazaar," she said. "Since the cukes don't come in all at the same time, the women can harvest and pickle throughout the summer. That makes it manageable."
We never managed to put up a jar of pickles last year, but we ate a lot of Tasty Green cucumbers. "Try Sooyow Nishiki," Shiroyama advised. "It's open-pollinated, and it's just delicious." Twist my arm.