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Katakuri is a type of lily that is native to Japan and is used as the traditional basis of katakuri-ko, a powdered starch used in cooking. The starch is made from finely ground lily bulbs. Katakuri-ko is a staple ingredient in a great many Japanese dishes from soups to fried tempura dishes. As a result, the lilies are in high demand and are often quite expensive. Most modern manufacturers make the starch at least in part from potatoes as a means of limiting cost.
The lily, known scientifically as Erythronium japonicum, is native to central and northern Japan, the Korean peninsula, and most of eastern China. Despite being a member of the lily family, it is nonetheless commonly referred to as a “dogtooth violet.” This is likely at least in part because of its color. The blooms, which appear for only a few weeks each spring, carry a distinctive purple shade.
Both the lily’s roots and bulb are edible and feature in a number of different local dishes. Cooking with katakuri often takes some patience, as the plant is tough and fibrous, but often provides a great many nutrients. Far and away the most popular use for the bulbs is in the preparation of a Japanese cooking starch and sauce thickener known as katakuri-ko or katakuriko. The starch carries neither taste nor smell, and is liberally used in a range of dishes. It can add non-intrusive substance to soups, and is often used to preserve the moisture in pan-fried or deep-fried meats and vegetables.
Grinding bulbs into starch was simple for primitive cooks in early Japan, and is a good example of using local resources and exploiting all of a plant’s parts. The flowers grew wild in most communities and were easy to find and dig up. Today, that same harvest is often much more costly, not to mention significantly less convenient. A lot of this has to do with the plant’s relative scarcity, as well as the growing demand for the bulb from Japanese cooks around the world.
In nature, the plant is what is known as an annual — the flower’s blooms and greenery will die off each year, but the bulb will produce new greenery each spring. A single bulb will often bloom for decades. One of the primary ways that the flowers propagate is through bulb splitting. Growing the flowers from seed is possible, though much more time-consuming.
It is often the case that the lily supply cannot live up to the demand of the katakuri-ko market, both inside and outside of Japan. The plants can be cultivated commercially, but they often take a lot of care and gardening effort to grow to maturity. Mature bulbs make the best starch, which makes the harvest a long and intensive process.
The vast majority of katakuri-ko on the market is made in whole or part from potato. Potatoes are much easier and cost-effective to cultivate, and lend a similar texture and quality. Modern cooks tend to view the term “katikuri-ko” as something of a generic term for starch and do not necessarily expect that it will be a bulb-based product. True katakuri starch is available in some specialty markets and is often blended with potato-based products for a more authentic feel. Such products are often much more costly, however, which can deter a more casual chef.