In Japanese, the name means “Taste of the Future” – a fitting description for a culinary sensation that has swept that nation, the discerning market where “Mirai” sweet corn was first introduced in the mid 1990s.
In the United States, Mirai’s intensity of flavor has also drawn raves from consumers. It has been featured on the front page of the Chicago Tribune and on television news programs nationwide. The late Paul Harvey liked it well enough to talk about Mirai sweet corn on his syndicated radio show – twice.
Despite Mirai’s popularity among “foodies,” however, its inventor – Montrose resident and corn scientist David Mackenzie – insists that his product is not about to challenge the very popular Olathe Sweet sweet corn for space on supermarket shelves.
Mackenzie does have a number of local acres planted with Mirai, for research and seed production. But he and his company, Centest, are still searching for ways to bring their niche market crop to a homegrown clientele.
That’s because Mirai, with its tender kernels and extra high sugar content, must be harvested by hand to prevent damage.
“We’ve had so much national press, but we haven’t made inroads to markets here,” Mackenzie said, adding that “anybody who ever eats Mirai will recognize that it is different than anything they have ever had before.”
With 17 to 28 percent sugar, the hybrid corn variety – which was created in 1993 without the use of biotechnology or genetic modifications – has been compared to a fruit, and even dessert. Mirai comes in white, yellow and bi-colored. Unlike traditional sweet corn, which is picked at as young and tender an age as possible, Mirai is left to rest for at least three days after harvest to allow additional sugars to develop.
“It has been a challenge to combine taste with high yield,” Mackenzie said, noting that for now, corn lovers must grow Mirai for themselves, or find a grower willing to do so.
“We will work with anyone interested in high taste,” he said.
Mackenzie hopes that some of his crop will be featured in menu items this summer at Montrose eatery Belly, where owner Eric Scott has earned a reputation for working with flavorful, high-quality ingredients.
Scott, who also owns Montrose’s Café 110, said that he plans to showcase the unique taste of Mirai in such dishes as sweet corn chowder and bisque.
“I will use it in as many places as I can until it is gone,” Scott said. “It is really good corn, really sweet. You almost need a glass of milk to go with it.”
Mirai was discovered by accident, when Mackenzie was experimenting with different corn varieties for an Iowa grower.
“We combined the most tender variety we could find with the sweetest,” Mackenzie said.
Because Mirai is more difficult to grow than traditional sweet corn, Japanese growers are able to charge a premium price, Mackenzie noted.
“A farmer should get a return for growing something that tastes better and is harder to grow,” he said. “In Japan, where they are willing to harvest by hand, the use of this seed has increased the price to the grower by 50 percent.”
Mirai is currently sold through 12 seed catalogs, and experimentation continues.
“We are growing experimental hybrids, selecting parents with unique taste, and crossing them in all combinations,” Mackenzie said, “to see if we can find something that will take us to the next level.”
If a promising sample is discovered, tests would be conducted in Montrose, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, Florida, California, Europe and Japan, he said.
Meanwhile, “for now we are limited to upscale markets and roadside stands,” Mackenzie said. “We are looking for farmers to grow and supply Mirai to the public.”