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Sea Grapes (N’kyafu)


Photo: TARUMI Kengo

Sea grapes’ classical Japanese name is kubiredzuta. In the Miyako dialect, they’re called n’kyafu. In stores they’re usually sold as “green caviar” or “sea grapes.”

Sea grapes have a fairly limited natural habitat. They grow in inlets where the waves are calm and the sea floor is either sand or silt. We know they grow around Iriomote Island, Yufu Island, and Kume Island, as well as in Yonaha Bay on Miyakojima, and in the waterways of Irabu Island and Shimoji Island. Among these places, Yonaha Bay is the most bountiful. There, just as the stalks of sweet potatoes spread over the land, n’kyafu carpet the ocean silt. The water is only one to three meters deep, and it’s mostly the residents of the Hisamatsu District who harvest n’kyafu. They set out in tiny rowboats and then jump into the water in the areas they think n’kyafu might be. The divers inspect the seafloor through diving goggles, and there they find black clumps waving gently in the murky water. That’s what they pluck. They make their way to the surface and haul the surprisingly heavy n’kyafu into their boats. The plants are terribly filthy, covered with mud and detritus. For anybody who was expecting a bright green bunch of fruits, this is sure to burst their bubble.

The mother plant sends up a shoot from a singular root, and from the shoot the leafy parts emerge. Each leaf is about eight centimeters long and is laden with countless fruits. The fruits are about two millimeters in diameter, roughly the same size as fish roe. Very dirty fish roe—at least until they’re washed.
 N’kyafu will only turn into vivid “green caviar” after the women have patiently worked all through the night. Mountains of n’kyafu are piled in kitchens, where the women then take a stalk in hand and pluck one bunch at a time, washing away all the grime and muck. Normally they’re silent, though occasionally someone will crack a joke to fight off drowsiness, and they work their monotonous job until dawn. The n’kyafu, which had formed such a massive mound, are reduced to a shockingly paltry amount once they’re finally clean and ready for sale. Once you see the work that goes into harvesting n’kyafu, you’ll start thinking that people who complain about the price in the stores deserve a good smack. 

N’kyafu are a strange plant. If you flavor them with soy sauce, they’ll shrivel up, but if you put those shriveled fruits back in water, they’ll return to their original roundness. In a refrigerator kept between five and ten degrees Celsius, they’ll stay fresh for three months.
 When you eat them, you’ll find each individual fruit bursts against your teeth with an indescribable feeling. Flavoring them with vinegared miso makes them a perfect snack to have with alcohol. They’re also used in sushi, as well as French cuisine. Their nutrients include calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and Vitamin A.

People began actively cultivating sea grapes in 1986, and the village of Onna on the main island now exports thirty tons of n’kyafu every year. That’s the same amount as Miyakojima, where they originated.1

Editor’s Note:

  1. Currently cultivation is mainly practiced on Kume Island, as well as on the main island at Itoman City and Onna Village.