May Eat

May 20, 2012

Part two in an ongoing series documenting the wild foods we are foraging month by month throughout the year. All plants/fungi were foraged and photographed around our mountain home on the Izu peninsula, Japan. Part one (April 2012) can be seen here.

Fuki (Petasites japonicus, bog rhubarb, giant butterbur, sweet coltsfoot), is a popular wild edible in Japan. The large flower buds (fukinotõ) are eaten at the end of winter/early spring. At this time of year it is the stems and leaves that are used. Usually a very easy plant to find. It grows in abundance in both rural and urban Japan. It tolerates a full range of light conditions from the deep shade of a forest to the full-sun of a field. It grows most lushly in wet, boggy conditions but will also grow in much drier areas.

fuki_Petasites japonicus
Fuki (Petasites japonicus)

Fuki should be pre-cooked. Discard the cooking water and keep the fuki soaking in fresh water until used. This process removes the egumi (a particular, yet rather difficult to describe, taste sensation indicating the presence of alkaloids). After pre-cooking the stems and leaves will have a pleasant mildly bitter taste. Once pre-cooked it is a very versatile vegetable lending itself to preparation in any number of ways.

Chidomegusa (Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides, lawn pennyroyal) is a creeping perennial often found in gardens, fertile and wet areas. It is one of the “living mulches” in our gardens (others refer to it as a weed). The Japanese name, chidomegusa, means “blood stopping plant,” indicating the traditional use of this plant as a coagulant applied to bleeding wounds. Other folk uses of chidomegusa in Japan are the treatment of fevers and edema. The raw leaves taste a lot like carrots. They are a delicious addition to salads. The leaves are small but will usually be found growing in dense patches making it relatively easy to harvest in quantity. Can be harvested year round, I think.

chidomegusa_Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides

Chidomegusa is known as a traditional Japanese folk remedy but is not considered a wild food in Japan. I began eating it after tasting it and liking the taste. Eating small quantities over a period of weeks, my feeling was that this was a good wild edible and experience has  confirmed this. I was surprised not to find the plant in Japanese wild food field guides but I have found reference to it in Wild vegetables of Karbi – Anglong district, Assam. In Assam the plant is known as Chong amok and is combined with salt and chilli to make chutney and used in the treatment of dysentery. In Thailand the whole plant is eaten and medicinal uses include the treatment of skin diseases and as a cough remedy.

Akamegashiwa (Mallotus japonicus) is a pioneer tree with edible/medicinal leaves. Look for it where forests meet clearings or abandoned, previously deforested land (in other words any abandoned land in Japan). It is a fast growing pioneer tree so the leaves may well be beyond reach. Cut off a limb of the tree to harvest. A single limb will provide abundant leaves but the very large leaves may be too tough. The leaves should be pre-cooked and the water discarded before combining with other ingredients. The taste of the leaves is unremarkable so “other ingredients” is recommended. Cooked akamegashiwa with a sweet vinegar dressing…akamegashiwa in a green Thai curry… Versatile rather than bland. A medicinal infusion is made from the leaves. Some people recommend using the green leaves, others the pink new leaves.

Akamegashiwa (Mallotus japonicus)akamegashiwa (Mallotus japonicus)
Akamegashiwa: the raw and the cooked.

Koakaso (Boehmeria spicata), a member of the nettle family (though stingless), is another green unremarkable in flavour but with a good texture and occurring in abundance. Steam or lightly boil the leaves and add something to flavour the greens or cook as part of a dish with stronger flavoured ingredients. Koakaso is also a pioneer plant and young leaves can be found in abundance at the forest edges.

Koakaso (Boehmeria spicata)Koakaso (Boehmeria spicata)
Asako harvesting koakaso
 (Boehmeria spicata)

Hanaikada (Helwingia japonica) is an intriguing plant. It flowers and sets fruit on the upper surface of its leaves (click on the photos below to enlarge). The leaves are edible and best harvested when the tiny flowers first appear on the leaves. This year the flowers appeared early in May. This is a forest understory shrub growing to around 1.5 metres. Steam or lightly boil the leaves. We eat them dressed with vinegar.

Hanaikada (Helwingia japonica)

Plants such as koakaso, akamegashiwa and hanaikada may have fallen from favour compared to other more interestingly flavoured wild edibles in Japan but, I suspect, these would have been important food sources in times when people were more inclined to graciously receive the gift of free food (rather than work long hours for the promise of future rewards). Subsisting, as we do, on a significant proportion of foraged foods, these “bland” plants are very welcome additions at this time of year. For what they lack in flavour they more than make up for in nutritional density (somewhat the reverse of modern cultivated and/or processed foods).

According to a study from Chinahanaikada (Helwingia japonica) leaves have a high polysaccharide (complex carbohydrate) content and are rich in “mineral elements,among which the content of Ca,Mg,Fe,Mn and Zn were comparatively high… Helwingia japonica leaves hold high nutritional value, and have vast prospects for development and applications.” Of akamegashiwa (Mallotus japonicus) a research paper from Japan reports the leaves are an “excellent source of strong natural antioxidative materials,” comparable to green tea. Another report highlights the hepatoprotective (preventing damage to the liver) properties found in the plant. I have not uncovered much information on the nutritional value of koakaso except as relates to its importance as monkey forage. But, let us not forget that we are, after all, in the words of Gary Snyder, just “sexy, funny, primates.”

Kikurage (Auricularia auricula-judae). With the spring rains and warming of the weather kikurage returns. Found throughout the world this fungi goes by many names. In my homeland it was once known as Taranaki wool due to the large quantities exported to China from the region of Taranaki (wool being the main economic export from Aotearoa/New Zealand at that time). A very popular edible fungus in Asia and widely used in traditional medicines including, up until the 19th century at least, in European folk medicine. Whether its the rubbery texture or general fungi-phobia, kikurage has never found much favour as an edible fungus in the west. (Had Europeans been introduced to Chinese cuisine sooner it may have been a different story).

Kikurage_Auricularia auricula-judae
Young kikurage

The young mushrooms make the best eating. They will be of a lighter brown than the older fungi which are typically a very dark brown. They can be eaten fresh (though not raw) or dried and later rehydrated for use. I often collect kikurage that have dried on the host wood and rehydrate before cooking. Although not as good as young kikurage they are still good.

As mentioned above kikurage has a long history of medicinal use. It is a popular ingredient in Chinese food-medicines. And eating your medicine as part of a nourishing meal is certainly the best way to take it! According to a research paper published in the  International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms (1: 169–72) kikurage is an excellent choice of food for anyone needing to lower cholesterol levels.

Yomogi, (Artmeisia vulgaris, mugwort, moxa). The English name mugwort most likely refers to its use in falvouring beer; wort meaning plant or herb and mug, as in mug of beer. This is one of the principle uses I put yomogi to and it ranks as one of my favourite beer herbs. (As I mentioned in the post on April edibles, a post on herbal beer making is in the works – another excellent way to take your medicine!).

Yomogi is considered a sacred herb in many parts of the world with a long list of medicinal uses. In Asia possibly the best known medicinal application is in the form of moxa sticks used in the practice of moxibustion: burning sticks or cones made of ground yomogi are laid directly on the skin or pressed onto loquat leaves laid against the skin. While the list of medicinal uses for this plant is far too long to go into in a post about eating plants I will just mention yomogi infusions (teas) as they are said to tone the stomach, relax the nervous system and aid digestion. Hence, a great tea to drink before eating. Don’t make them too strong though for as the 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper warns, a strong infusion will “disgust the taste.” To make an infusion use the very tops of the plants.

Yomogi (Artemisia vulgaris)Yomogi (Artemisia vulgaris)
Left: Young yomogi plant. Right: White underside of yomogi leaf

Yomogi appears early in the spring, grows from 1 to 2 metres tall (possibly more) during the summer and dies back in autumn. The small early spring shoots – 15cm’s or so – are usually preferred for eating. Yomogi tempura is a popular spring dish. This year Asako has been pulping the yomogi and using it to flavour dishes such as steamed buns with adzuki bean filling. Similar to that other popular use of yomogi; flavouring daifuku (rice cakes).

yomogi (Artemisia vulgaris)yomogi (Artemisia vulgaris) pulpedyomogi (Artemisia vulgaris) steamed bun
Making yomogi and adzuki steamed buns

Sanshõ (Zanthoxylum piperitum, Japanese pepper). This is a pungent little plant and while it is usually the dried husks of the seeds that are used, at this time of the year young small leaves can be eaten. The young leaves of spring are most often used as a garnish in Japan but if used sparingly they can add fantastic flavour to a dish. The key is to use sparingly. Sanshõ will make the tongue tingle – often a sign that you should be a little wary of a plant – but it is perfectly safe to eat. Maybe not in large quantities but I can’t imagine anyone would even try. It is far too intense for that. I sometimes see sanshõ in sugi and hinoki plantations (otherwise known as “the green deserts”). Usually I see it growing in dappled light to almost full shade.

sanshou (Zanthoxylum piperitum)sanshou (Zanthoxylum piperitum)

Some of the plants that I mentioned in the April post that continue to sustain us in May are renge (Astragalus sinicus) flowers, sumire (Viola spp.), shidoke (Cacalia delphinifolia), takenoko (Phyllostachys edulis), ashitaba (Angelica keiskei) and udo (Aralia cordata).

Shidoke, by this time of year, is considered by many in Japan to be too tough to eat. The large leaves and stems often will be but the small ones should still be tender enough to make for very fine eating. The same is true of takenoko. The preference in Japan is for small shoots harvested when they have barely emerged from the ground. When the shoots are bigger (up to three metres in height) they still make really good eating but with a slightly different texture. They also have less egumi (in the case of takenoko, indicating the presence homogentisic acid). Cut the soft tip off the growing bamboo (about 50cm’s with moso (Phyllostachys edulis)), remove the outer skin and cook. The lack of egumi means there is no need to pre-cook with rice bran as is done with the small new shoots.

Ashitaba,  (Japanese angelica, Angelica keiskei), is a popular wild food in Japan. The young leaves have a unique flavour that is much loved. Boil lightly and mix with soy sauce and sesame seeds. Or tempura maybe?

ashitaba (Angelica keiskei)
Ashitaba (Angelica keiskei)

Udo (Aralia cordata), like ashitaba, remains a popular wild food in Japan. Of udo it is the stem that is eaten which, should be peeled to remove the hairy outer skin. To keep the fresh colour soak in water with a drop or two of vinegar after peeling. Sauté, add to a hot pot or soup, tempura, kinpira, pickle…

udo (Aralia cordata)udo stem (Aralia cordata)
Udo (Aralia cordata)

Well, that is plenty for this month. I can already think of a couple of plants I have left out but this could go on forever. Happy foraging. And don’t forget to drink wild water!


5 Responses to “May Eat”

  1. kenelwood Says:

    Wowzers! I’ve been writing all this down and… Am looking forward to the months to come! Cheers, ken

  2. john e Says:

    Yeah, this should be a book, hint hint!

    • dion Says:

      Thanks John. At the end of this twelve month series I intend to create a fully indexed pdf document for download collating all the posts. But, if there should happen to be a publisher out there willing to publish the material without copyright on 100% post-consumer recycled paper then maybe a real book is possible.

  3. I would be interested to know what you consider to be the differences between Angelica keiskei and Angelica edulis (Miyabe)?

    • dion Says:

      Hi Paul,
      we don’t have Angelica edulis (Amaniyu in Japanese) growing here – it is more commonly found north of where we are – but here is the little I know about it. Some physical differences are that edulis has shinier leaves than keiskei, and it has white flowers whereas the flowers of keiskei are yellow tinged. Also when you break a stem of each the keiskei will produce a really bright yellow fluid whereas the edulis will be rather pale yellow. As for eating, as far as I know – not having eaten the edulis yet – they can both be used in the same ways. We eat the shoots and leaves.

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