Answer / Introduction
Palm trees are a ubiquitous sight across Japan and can be found in the tropical climes of the country’s southern islands (Okinawa, Amami Oshima, etc.), up through Kyushu, and all the way north through to the capital city of Tokyo.
In fact, the juxtaposition of a tropical-looking palm tree against a snowy background is quite a sight to behold.
This effect is heightened in places like Zushi Marina, which, with its endless rows of Washingtonia palm trees, a yacht harbor, and trendy cafés and restaurants, seems to belong more in Malibu or Palm Beach than in Japan.
Common types of palm trees lining Japan’s coastal areas are Trachycarpus, Washingtonia, Phoenix, and Sago palm (known locally as Sotetsu.)
These can withstand the country’s sometimes harsh winters, but hearts of palm tend to be grown in warmer climates with a more limited temperature range, e.g., places like Brazil, Costa Rica, or Hawaii, where average lows never really drop below 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit (16 – 18 degrees Celsius.)
More importantly, the species grown in Japan aren’t really used for culinary purposes to begin with, as this role is reserved for species like the coconut, açaí, and chontaduro palm.
For the sake of precision, it should be noted that palms are indeed part of traditional Ryukyuan cuisine in Southern Japan, as these plants can be used to make porridge and even miso.
However, nowadays, this is somewhat of a lost art form, with very few people possessing the actual skill and craft to prepare these dishes.
As is the case with the adan fruit, palms are no longer a significant part of Ryukyuan cuisine, perhaps due to the fact that these dishes require supervision from a highly-experienced cook who knows how to handle these plants.
Another factor is a general lack of demand for these dishes.
Types of Palm Trees in Japan
Trachycarpus palms are a ubiquitous sight throughout southern, central, and eastern Japan. Specimens can be found in parks, lining streets near the seashore, and even in sleepy suburbia, where these majestic trees blend seamlessly into a tangled mess of overhead power lines.
It’s a common single-stemmed species, but one that is used purely for decorative purposes.
One reason for this is that palms grown agriculturally need to have multiple root sprouts growing at any given time so that growers can have access to an ever-replenishing stock of trees: a feature that is not found in this suburban palm.
The economics make sense, and it is this dynamic that makes it possible for consumers like you and me to enjoy sustainably-grown and ethically-sourced hearts of palm.
Other species of palm commonly found in Japan, especially in coastal areas like Chiba and Kanagawa, are Washingtonia, Phoenix, and Sago palm trees.
With exceedingly rare exceptions, hearts of palm are not harvested from these species, either.
Buying Hearts of Palm in Japan
As we have already established, while palm trees are a common feature of the urban and rural landscape in Japan, hearts of palm are neither part of traditional nor of modern Japanese cuisine.
In fact, not a single supermarket within a 10-mile radius from where I live carries this product, despite there usually being a hearty selection of imported products for shoppers to choose from.
Coconut milk, olives, and canned white asparagus are readily available, but hearts of palm remain extremely elusive.
I couldn’t find anything locally, but in the age of e-commerce, price is the sole constraint on one’s ability to procure the finest and most rarefied delicacies.
Case in point is how I recently spent a non-trivial sum of money to find out once and for all if the Gros Michel banana, which was surreptitiously put out of circulation and replaced some six decades ago, is indeed tastier than its successor, the Cavendish.
Turns out the difference is rather quite minute, but that doesn’t detract from the beauty of e-commerce: everything is one click away, even hearts of palm in a country without any particular appreciation for this delicacy.
Eventually, I was able to get my hands on a can of whole hearts of palm, although I could have also gone for the jarred version. Not knowing if there was any meaningful difference (both come pickled in a brine solution), I opted for the former.
At around 30 cents per ounce ($1 per 100 grams) this is an expensive little snack, but its versatility makes up for the cost somewhat, as hearts of palm can be used in salads and also as a fish replacement in many vegan recipes.
In fact, when prepared correctly, hearts of palm are a very convincing facsimile of lobster rolls, so I do find it rather surprising that this option is not a ubiquitous fixture on menus at gourmet food trucks and restaurants in Shibuya, Omotesando, and Shinagawa.
Admittedly, access to fresh hearts of palm (which only last a couple of weeks) might be a limiting factor in the integration of this delicacy into menu items like vegan lobster rolls, but this only applies to the high-end of the restaurant spectrum.
Casual and mid-tier establishments are not constrained by such considerations and can easily use canned or jarred hearts of palm instead.
The options are nearly endless: vegan lobster rolls, crab cakes, calamari, fish sticks, etc., not to mention a wide variety of salads.