As the snow melts and spring approaches, sansai (mountain vegetables) start to flourish. These greens are the true harbingers of Japanese spring, offering a refreshingly bitter counterpart to the typically mild vegetality of other spring vegetables such as peas and asparagus. Without exception, when you ask when the best time is to come and enjoy any given area’s cuisine, the proliferation of mountain vegetables across the country guarantees the answer is spring.
Except for zenmai (fiddlehead ferns), fuki (giant butterbur), udo (herbal aralia) and mitsuba (Japanese parsley), most mountain vegetables endemic to Japan are foraged exclusively in the wild. As such, they’re only available in stores and on menus around this time, though these seasonal lines are beginning to blur. Don’t go out foraging as a novice on your own: It’s best to buy mountain vegetables harvested by knowledgeable foragers, since there are many similar-looking toxic plants.
While many of these myriad sprouts, including buds and alliums, can be found in forests and fields all over Japan, others are only available regionally. The following are but a few of what you might encounter in your travels across Japan, along with some ideas on how to use them.
Nobiru (Allium macrostemon, known as long-stamen chives in English) is a wild onion found all over East Asia near water sources such as garden faucets, streams or rice fields. Thin, chive-like “leaves” with white, sometimes pinkish, bulbed bottoms, nobiru start to appear toward the end of winter and last well into spring. Best eaten raw, swiped through a mound of miso, nobiru add a nice piquant note to soups and egg dishes and can also be used as a substitute for chives or scallions.
Golf ball-sized fuki no to (butterbur buds) emerge from the ground after the spring thaw, peeking out through the snow or desiccated leaf cover in forests or fields. The most quintessential Japanese spring flavor, these almost acrid, menthol-like, wide-open buds are most often deep-fried as tempura and eaten dipped in sea salt. But they can just as well be coarsely chopped and gently simmered with miso, sake and mirin (sweet fermented cooking alcohol) to make fuki no to miso — a compelling condiment to dab on the side of a bowl of freshly cooked white rice. Avoid the root, however, because it contains toxins.
In the Araliaceae family, the Japanese angelica tree (Aralia elata) produces tara no me (thick-stemmed shoots tipped with frilly purple-tinged leaves) in the late winter and early spring. Colloquially, tara no me is known as the “king” of mountain vegetables, perhaps because of its stunning appearance. Also in the Araliaceae family, koshiabura (thin-stemmed buds with soft green leaves found on the Chengiopanax sciadophylloides tree) is dubbed the “queen” of mountain vegetables.
Both tara no me and koshiabura are mildly bitter, with naturally restorative properties. Yama udo (Aralia cordata), sometimes called mountain asparagus, is yet another in the Araliaceae family that produces soft, slightly furry buds with soft spiky tops in the spring; though, unlike its more fragrant cousins, it has a distinctly resin-like flavor that aids digestion.
All of these buds and shoots can be snapped off judiciously, leaving enough for the tree to thrive, and batter-fried as tempura. Alternatively, they can also be served as ohitashi (simmered and dressed with soy sauce–flavored dashi) or as shira-ae (smashed tofu with sesame)
Seri and mitsuba
Japanese seri (wild parsley) is foraged in early spring and, depending on the variety, appears as a tangled mass of crunchy pink-tinged stalks with tiny peppery leaves or as fine, upright stalks with almost celery-like leaves.
Not to be confused with seri is mitsuba , another aromatic green often translated as “trefoil” but, confusingly, also called “Japanese wild parsley.” Mitsuba is grown hydroponically year-round, and is ubiquitous both in Japan and abroad in miso soup with clams. But spring-foraged mountain mitsuba has an unparalleled depth of flavor, at once peppery and pungent in an oddly appealing way. Both seri and mitsuba are lovely in soups and with eggs and, of course, as tempura.
Fiddlehead ferns are the one mountain vegetable readily found in forests all over the world. In Japan, there are two main varieties: warabi (bracken ferns; long and thin with finely curled tops) and kogomi (ostrich ferns; fuzzy, tight-headed, with thick stems). Warabi needs to be rubbed with ash or baking soda and soaked in cold water before cooking, though kogomi can be consumed as is. After blanching, these fiddleheads are most often eaten simply, dressed with soy-based dashi.
While seasonality is becoming less well-defined in Japan, spring, and the ephemeral blooming and falling of cherry blossoms, remains a time of great celebration and collective joy. But culinarily, too, mountain vegetables remind us of how the natural world mirrors and delivers what we need at a given moment in time. This spring in particular, it seems we need these healthful, bitter foods to wake up our appetites and stimulate our senses. Otherwise, the chaos of our current world might drive us all mad.
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