July 23, 2013

yamamomo (Myrica rubra)

‘Tis the season for yamamomo (Myrica rubra), variously known to the English-speaking world as Chinese or Japanese bayberry, red bayberry, yumberry, Asian bog myrtle, Chinese strawberry tree or waxberry. Of these last two names the former comes from a resemblance to the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and the latter because the fruit of other myrica species is coated in wax (from which candles can be made) and therefore they are known as wax myrtles or wax berries. However, despite sometimes being referred to as waxberry, the fruit of M. rubra does not have a waxy coating. A friend who lives without electricity (and thus always interested in potential sources of candle wax) has been wholly unsuccessful, despite her best attempts, in extracting any wax from M. rubra.

The Japanese name, yamamomo (山桃), means ‘mountain (yama 山) peach (momo 桃)’ although there is nothing very peach-like about the fruits of yamamomo. But then neither is there much peach-like about the native plums which are called sumomo (which once meant vinegar, or sour, (su 酸) peach (momo 桃)[1], although in contemporary Japanese sumomo is usually written 李 which obfuscates this older meaning). As far as I can see the only thing these other momo’s have in common with peaches is that they are round, stone fruits and usually red-ish.

The fruits of yamamomo are about 1.5 – 2 cm’s in diameter (there are cultivated varieties that have larger fruits however, according to local growers, the fruit is easily damaged by inclement weather at harvest time). The fruits grow in clusters and are dark red to purple when ripe. The tree is evergreen with leathery leaves and grey bark, reaching heights of 15 metres. It grows on forested mountain slopes (100 – 1500 metres) throughout southern China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the Philippines…[2]

yamamomo ​(​Myrica rubra)

The fruits are refreshingly tart and may be eaten fresh though often they are served in a sweet syrup. They also make wonderful wine (and if you can make wine you can, of course, make vinegar too). In both China and Japan they are used to make a medicinal liquor (steeped  in báijiǔ in China and shōchū in Japan). See recipes below.

I have been told that, in the past, the seeds of yamamomo were also eaten in Japan. The seeds are “stones” like those of plums — although rather small they are very hard. I am yet to find out exactly how the seeds were rendered edible but I will surely update this post when I do.

The traditional medicinal uses of M. rubra by the peoples of east Asia include as an antidote for arsenic poisoning, a carminative, an anti-inflammatory, for the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, dyspesia, nausea, excessive perspiration, psoriasis, and in the treatment of wounds, ulcers and sores.[3]

For the treatment of arsenic poisoning, wounds, sores and skin diseases a decoction of the stem bark is applied externally.[4]

The leaves have long been known to practitioners of Chinese medicine to be anti-inflammatory and recent studies have shown the juice of the fruits is also anti-inflammatory and effective in the treatment of ulcers.[5, 6]


Yamamomo in syrup

yamamomo in syrupThe few recipes for sweetened yamamomo that I have seen recommended cooking the fruit for 5 – 10 minutes in the syrup but I find this makes the fruit too mushy and it loses its wonderful tart edge. They also recommended an equal weight of sugar to that of the fruit – I say half that amount of sugar is plenty. I suspect these people don’t even like yamamomo!

  1. Soak yamamomo in a salt brine for 30 minutes then rinse. This is to remove insects of which there are usually plenty.
  2. Bring sugar (half the weight of the fruit) to a boil in enough water to cover the fruit.
  3. Add the fruit and boil for just a couple of minutes.
  4. Put the fruit in jars and cover completely with the the syrup and screw on lids.

After about 24 hours they should be ready. Kept in a cool place they should keep for a month. If, once filled and capped, the jars are covered with hot water and boiled for 20 – 30 minutes the fruit should keep for up to a year. For more on processing for long term storage see here. I have attempted a batch with raw fruit — the yamamomo was not placed in the boiling syrup but directly in the jars and the hot syrup poured over the fruit — however, it started to ferment within a few days. Still tasted great though.

After finishing the fruit the syrup is used to make a very pleasant summer drink. Pour a little in the bottom of a glass and fill with cold water.


Yamamomo Wine

Yamamomo wineYamamomo fruits are coated in wild yeasts which, if treated right, will happily make alcohol for you. And they’re so easy to please! Place the fruit in sugary water and stir often. As simple as that. How much sugar you use will affect the vigour and length of fermentation and thus the strength (alcohol content) of your brew. For a strong wine, use more. For 2kg of yamamomo I use about 1.25 kg’s of sugar. To make a simple “country wine” to be consumed “green”: [7]

  1.  Do not wash the yamamomo. You want to keep all the wild yeast on the fruit. Yes, there probably will be many tiny insects in the fruit but these will be strained out later. Place the fruit in the bottom of a container – a food grade plastic bucket or large glass jar will do nicely.
  2. Dissolve the sugar in enough cold water to generously cover the fruit (5 to 10 cm’s is good). Pour this mixture over the fruit in the bucket.
  3. Stir. And stir often. The more you can stir your potion the better. I stir my concoctions anywhere from 6 to 10 times a day. At a minimum give it at least four good stirrings every day.Making yamamomo wine
  4. Between stirring keep your bucket covered with a lid, cloth or anything else that keeps flies and dust out.
  5. After a day or two you should see bubbles or froth forming on the top of the liquid. Keep up the daily stirrings until the froth begins to lessen – hopefully this will take a couple of weeks.
  6. When fermentation does begin to subside strain in to bottles and enjoy.


Yamamomo vinegar

Vinegar is essentially wine that has been overexposed to oxygen. Once the yeasts that converted the sugars to alcohol have begun to lose steam through lack of food acetobacter (acetic-acid-producing bacteria who were always present but until now held in check by the vigour of the yeasts) begin to dominate. It is acetobacter that will turn your wine in to vinegar.

So, to make vinegar follow the wine making steps listed above but rather than bottling the finished wine strain it into another wide mouthed container and keep covered with a cloth. Taste regularly and when it reaches the desired acidity (when it tastes like vinegar) bottle and cap. A vinegar ‘mother’ may have formed on top which you’ll need to remove before bottling. But don’t discard this. You can eat it, feed to it to your chickens or compost it.


Yamamomo Koubo

Given that yamamomo is abundantly covered in wild yeasts (kõbo) it can also be used as a yeast source for bread (and probably beer too). Place some fruit in a jar, cover with water and add some honey or sugar. Stir or shake the jar often (if shaking release pressure by opening the lid after shaking). When it begins to bubble vigorously it is ready to use. For bread, just add some of the liquid to your dough mix. A little experimentation may be needed to get the amount right.


Yamamomo shochu

yamamomo (Myrica rubra) ShochuSimply steep yamamomo in liquor for a month or more. Here in Japan shōchū is typically used, in China it is báijiǔ and in Korea soju. These are all white liquors usually ranging from around 35 – 60% alcohol by volume. Vodka would be an obvious substitute. If you’re concerned about little insects in your alcohol soak the fruit in a salt brine for 30 minutes then rinse. Place the fruit in a jar and cover with liquor of your choice.

If your focus is on extracting the medicinal qualities of yamamomo then what you are making is a tincture. Fill your jar with as much fruit as possible before adding the liquor. Let it sit for at least one month and keep it out of direct sunlight. Shaking it around a bit from time to time is not a bad idea either.

If, on the other hand, you just want to flavour some liquor for drinking then less fruit/more liquor can be used.



1. https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/スモモ. Accessed 7/19/2013.

2. Flora of China Vol. 4. Available online at efloras.org. Accessed 7/20/2013.

3. Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. Accessed 7/23/2013.

4. Plants for a Future, Myrica rubra. Accessed 7/23/2013.

5. Wang, S.J., et al., ‘Anti-inflammatory activity of myricetin isolated from Myrica rubra leaves.’ Planta Med 76(14), October 2010.

6. Alajmi et al., ‘Some pharmacological actions of Myrica rubra.’ African Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology Vol. 7(9), 8 March, 2013. PDF from Academicjournals.org. Accessed 7/23/2013.

7. For more on making country wines (or any other fermentation technique for that matter) see Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green, 2012.


Let it Bleed

February 18, 2013

Originally posted on Les Chroniques Purple, February 16, 2013.

During a recent spell of particularly warm days a paper wasp appeared on the toilet wall. In subsequent days the temperature plummeted and (if she has moved at all) her movements have been barely perceptible. Coaxed from hibernation by the arrival of spring. Or, maybe not…

Although the sun rises higher in the sky with each passing day the nights remain crisp—cold clear skies and shimmering stars. This cold dark energy has dominated the past months. During this time many plants concentrate their vital energy, their ki, in root systems sunk deep in the relatively warm soil. There are also plants that have hugged the ground closely protecting themselves from the brutal wind that whips up the valley. Now, here and there, fukinoto, the small buds of the giant butterbur, have begun popping up from the ground. Fukinoto we deep fry or boil and mix with miso paste. It is a bitter tasting plant. The bitterness of many spring wild edible plants stimulates the digestive system and helps flush out the residue accumulated through the winter’s heavier fare. Fukinoto is a plant that reminds us of winters passing and the arising of spring.


It is a commonplace that farmers or those who “live close to the land” are more keenly attuned to the seasons. For us, living as foragers and gardeners in a forest, what we have become more aware of is the bleeding boundaries of the seasons across time and space. Spring, summer, autumn and winter as discrete seasons with “official” starting dates—be they astronomical or calendar-based—seem to have little to do with the dynamic flow of constant and gradual change that we experience. The drum roll of spring beginning somewhere in the depths of winter. The fall crescendo building momentum in the torrid days of summer.

During February—usually the coldest month—the morning ground glistens with a carpet of frost. The chickens struggle to drink water through the crust of ice that covers their bowl during the frigid nights. Winter scenes to be sure. However, late morning, as the sun crests over the mountains to the south, a warm glow fills the valley and a different scene is revealed. The tiny white flowers of chickweed peek out from the plants’ increasingly lush growth. Thousands of frog eggs become visible (how long have they been there?) on the bottom of a small pond. The first tentative blooms appear in the tree canopy.

Behind our house a path cuts across the slope of the hill. Above the path, where the sun hits early, where a bamboo grove shelters the land from strong winds, where the slope of the hillside encourages frost to move along without settling, daffodils have been glorying in days of spring for weeks already. It is here that the florets of nabana, a wild mustard, can be picked first. Below the path, in the depths of the valley, where the sun comes late, where the land is fully exposed to the gales and where frost settles thickly it is still the midst of winter. Here the nabana will arrive much later but will continue producing delicious florets for much longer.

For the forager attuning to the seasons, or “eating seasonally,” is a deep practice. It is an invitation to learn the lay of the land intimately; to learn the precise gradients in temperature caused by the differing angles of the sun as it touches a hillside; to develop a sense of the microclimates offered by a rocky outcrop, a tree, a body of water; to observe where the soil is most, or least, fertile. We overlay this information with what we have learned from the plants: preferences in soil fertility and warmth, preferences in amount of sunlight exposure relative to air temperature, how much rain in which temperature range will spur the fruiting of a particular fungi… Of course this is not to be studied in books then applied in the field but learned by doing, slowly. And anyway, it can hardly be said that it is consciously applied at all but rather, in a most subtle way, the feet, the eyes, the hands are guided.

– Asako Kitaori & Dion Workman


November 20, 2012

The end of November is fast approaching and I have a post that I began back in September still in front of me. Sorry to those who have been following the ‘monthly’ report on the wild foods we are foraging. Better late than never, right? Unfortunately, attempting to document our wild diet has come at the expense of writing about anything else. And even then I am barely scratching the surface of our foraging adventures or doing justice to the particular plants of which there is so much more to say. So, following this post I think it will be time for a change in approach. Naturally I will continue to write about wild foods but I will put them back in to the larger context of life at Shikigami.

September saw us looking skyward. The first notes of the mountains autumnal song falling from wild cherry. A welcome fall in temperature too after the long, hot and humid summer. September skies also bring the manna, the kuri, the chestnuts! Like the first irregular raindrops of a coming downpour one or two chestnuts begin falling here and there. Day by day the frequency increases, the nuts get bigger, hitting the earth now with a deep thud and then…the heavens open.

kurinoki_japanese cestnut

Kuri (Castanea crenata), a native of the Japanese forests, in its true wild form is known as yamaguri or mountain chestnut. It was a staple food of the Jōmon (14,000 BCE to 300 BCE) and is still plentiful throughout Japan’s mountainous forests. Yamaguri wood was prized by charcoal makers who maintained extensive coppice woodlands in the mountains until the early 20th Century. In some areas charcoal production continued for much longer (on a very small scale until the present even)  and as yamaguri logs were also used for growing shiitake mushrooms many remnant coppices are still marginally maintained or only recently abandoned. Charcoal production was the primary occupation in the forests surrounding Shikigami hence, we have yamaguri in abundance.

But I get ahead of myself. The wild yamaguri offers up its sweet nourishing nuts last of all. Before the yamaguri we have close to two months of offerings from all the cultivated varieties that are grown in Japan. The sweet nuts of the earliest varieties begin falling around early September and for the remainder of the month and in to October we have the mid and late varieties. Two months of continuous chestnuts! These varieties have been cultivated not only to extend the harvest season but also to increase the size of individual nuts some of which are truly enormous. (The yamaguri nuts might be much smaller but they are exquisitely delicious.) Kuri have been widely planted across Japan and there are many abandoned groves waiting for the wandering forager or minimally maintained groves for the gleaner.

kuri_chestnutsWhat do we do with all these chestnuts? We give away a lot. The chestnut is still a highly regarded seasonal food in Japan and gifts of kuri are always welcome. We dry a lot. By sun drying the kuri we can preserve them for up to a year and they make a wonderful addition to winter soups. We also make shibukawani (chestnuts preserved in a sweet syrup that make for a delicious snack and also will keep for a year or longer) and marron glacé (mouth-watering chestnut sweets of French and northern Italian origin). And we eat generous amounts throughout the season either boiled, roasted or as kurigohan (chestnuts cooked with rice).


Drying Chestnuts

We dry our chestnuts with the tough outer skins on. Peeling dried chestnuts is not so different from peeling fresh ones – a slow process – so better to be peeling small quantities as the nuts are needed rather than devoting a whole day(s) to peeling. The nuts are also likely to keep a lot better wrapped in their thick outer skins.

Pick nice large plump chestnuts without any obvious damage or worm holes.

Place in a bucket and cover with water. Remove any that float. Add a few drops of vinegar and soak the chestnuts in this solution for a couple of days. This should take care of any larvae inside the nut. The first year we dried chestnuts half of them were soaked in the water/vinegar solution and the other half not. We had to throw away almost all of the latter group because of worm infestation while we got to eat all of the soaked chestnuts.

Drain and lay in the sun to dry. It takes time so it’s a good idea to do this when a good long spell of sunny days is likely. When done the chestnuts should be hard, shrunken and thus separated from the outer skin.


Inubiwa (Ficus erecta)

Don’t be mislead by the Japanese folk name for this fruit –  Inu (dog) biwa (loquat) – for it is a wild fig bearing no resemblance in look or taste to either the loquat tree or fruit. The tree itself doesn’t look much like the common edible figs either, at least not the leaves, but outwardly the fruits certainly resemble small figs and split one open and the resemblance is unmistakable. When the Japanese folk name for a plant refers to an animal it usually indicates the plant is not highly regarded as a human food source – food only fit for dogs – but these plants have been important food sources in Japan at one time or another and the Japanese are some of the fussiest eaters around!

Tasting a single fruit you might agree that this fruit does not have the characteristics humans usually enjoy in fruit – sweetness or strong flavour, for example – but taste another…and another. Have a whole handful. Inubiwa is a lucky dip. One in five might be rather bland – but that leaves four out of five which, sufficiently ripe are sweet and juicy with a definite fig flavour. (Sufficiently ripe: a deep purple plump fruit. In the picture below the fruit on the left looks about just right while the one on the right has a while to go yet).

Sitting under a streamside tree enjoying a bowlful of inubiwa with friends we speculated on the potential of the inubiwa as a dried fruit. The consensus was that it would probably make a fine dried fruit as the drying would likely concentrate the sugars and intensify the flavour and, small as they are, it would be well worth experimenting with. As would cooking lightly, mashing and making fruit leathers. As this conversation went on one or another of us would return to the inubiwa tree and refill our bowl. After our third bowl, concluding that indeed the inubiwa would likely make a fine dried fruit, there were no fruits left on the tree to harvest for our experiment! But we have been given a second chance for the inubiwa here seems to be fruiting in waves. There was a first flush beginning some three weeks ago [early September] and now the trees are covered in green immature fruits once again.

Kitsunenogoma (Justicia procumbens) is a very common plant in Japan. At Shikigami it is one of the dominant wild plants of the clearings from August through October. It will often be found in disturbed, fertile areas – carefully manicured gardens, for example.

Kitsunenogoma means fox’s sesame. Again the folk name tells us that this plant has been known as a food plant although not a highly prized one, or, at least, not as highly prized as sesame (by those who bestowed this name on the plant – I do find it curious that the common name for this plant does not reflect its long history of use in Japanese folk medicine). Indeed, the seeds of kitsunenogoma can be eaten but it would seem their traditional use has been a little different from that of sesame seeds for the seeds of kitsunenogoma, according to Tanaka’s Cyclopedia of Edible Plants of the World, are cooked and usually made into a flour. But September, is not the month for gathering and eating the fox’s sesame seeds – here they look to be some weeks away yet – nor is it the time to gather the leaves which can also be eaten – by this time the leaves are a little too tough. Young leaves gathered when the plant first begins emerging are preferable and can be boiled or steamed or eaten raw. However, now is the time to harvest the wonderful kitsunenogoma for its medicine.

kitsunenogoma (Justicia procumbens)

We take the medicine of kitsunenogoma in two ways: internally, we drink water infused with the herb and externally, we bath in water infused with the herb. The folk uses of the fox’s sesame include the treatment of muscle aches, lower back aches (lumbago), nerve aches, arthritis and rheumatism – hence, bathing in a hot steaming infusion. Also traditionally used in Japan for colds, coughs, fevers and sore throats – drinking a hot steaming infusion! In India Justicia procumbens is used in the treatment of opthalmia or, inflammation of the eyes. Here the juice of the leaves is applied directly to the afflicted eye. In China the plant has long been recognized as alterative, anodyne, carminative, expectorant, diaphoretic, diuretic and laxative. In addition to the traditional uses found in Japan and India, in Chinese medicine the herb is used in the treatment of asthma, boils, cankers, swelling, intestinal worms, wasting diseases (marasmus), and for stimulation of the qi and circulatory system. Kitsunenogoma is yet another plant currently being researched for its anti-cancer properties. I wonder if any of those white-coated types will ever research the connection between cancers and our (self)exile from the green world.

Gobō (burdock, Arctium lappa), another superb medicinal food, is now largely considered to be a uniquely Japanese and Korean culinary delight but was also once – and not that long ago – widely eaten in Europe. The long tap roots of gobō are deeply nourishing, packed with minerals and vitamins and phytochemicals that help the body absorb all of the goodness. Gobō’s thick tap root penetrating deeply the good earth is indeed a deep earthy food. 

Being so treasured in Japan gobō has been afforded a special place as a pampered and cultivated garden crop but through the process of domestication the plant has remained close to its wild roots – one of those plants that will never let itself be truly domesticated. Yet still, we prefer wild plants, plants growing where they choose, when they choose. Gobō is a tough and persistent character so if you don’t have it growing wild near by plant some seeds, let it grow for its two-year life cycle until it sets its own seed then let its velcro-like burs (burdock burs were, in fact, the inspiration for velcro) carry the seed to a pleasing location and watch gobō go.

We are yet to harvest the roots of gobō this year. We prefer to wait well into late autumn to get the root at its largest although some folks, harvesting primarily for medicinal purposes, recommend digging up the roots from mid to late summer. During September we harvest the seeds for food/medicine and have also had occasion to use the leaves medicinally. The seeds of gobō are edible, nourishing and medicinal. As a biennial it is best to harvest the root of gobō towards the end of its first year. By the second year, as the energy shifts to the setting of seed, the root will be too fibrous for eating. So, eat the seed instead!

In The Book of Herbal Wisdom Turtle Island herbalist Matthew Wood, speaking of burdock, tells us that “the seed has the capacity to penetrate to the core, stimulating metabolism and digestion, promoting waste removal, moving waste products towards the periphery and out through the sweat pores, urine and stool.” The seeds have also long been used to reverse “unnatural” hair loss – the hair having an important relationship with the skin, the skin manifesting waste products inadequately processed by the kidneys. But Wood points out that the seeds are associated with the liver also, acting “on an overfull liver, which is incapable of handling all the waste products sent its way for processing.” The seeds are pungent and slightly bitter. We eat a few raw seeds everyday but they can also be added to other foods and, if not being used primarily for their medicinal qualities, roasted or cooked in any fashion.

On a recent visit to Turtle Island Asako came in contact with poison ivy and a couple of days after her return to Japan broke out in terrible blistering sores. Making decoctions from gobō leaves we swabbed the sores and kept her arms wrapped in whole gobō leaves while she slept. This treatment certainly seemed to help speed the process of eliminating the toxins through the skin, drawing out the poison, and assisting in a speedy recovery.

Last but not least this month we have mukago (Dioscorea japonica). Mukago are the aerial tubers of the plant Discorea japonica, known to the English speaking world as Japanese yam and to the Japanese as Yamaimo (mountain potato). Discorea species are true yams – unlike the ‘yams’ of Aotearoa/New Zealand which are actually oca (Oxalis tuberosa) or the ‘yams’ of North America which are really sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas). Yamaimo may be best known and most widely appreciated for their delicious underground tubers but the aerial tubers are a fine wild food in their own right. And, while it takes a good three or four years of growth for the underground tuber to reach a good size for harvesting the plant yearly produces loads of mukago. The mukago are the seed of the yamaimo so while harvesting take the time to press a few good looking mukago into the soil to ensure perpetual harvests.

The mukago have a texture a little like satoimo  (Japanese taro)  and are fantastic in miso soups or as mukagogohan (steamed with rice). They are small (up to 1cm diameter) so getting a decent harvest can be a slow and relaxing process – if you let it be. We have other species of Discorea at Shikigami both wild and introduced. One which grows wild looks very similar to the Discorea japonica and also produces aerial tubers the same size as mukago from the leaf axils but these tubers are extremely bitter. This species develops its aerial tubers a little earlier than Discorea japonica so, generally, by the time we begin harvesting mukago (late September/early October) the bitter ones have already fallen to the ground (whereas the mukago are still on the vines from which we harvest them). Another way we can tell the difference is that the bitter-aerial-tuber Discorea species’ leaves alternate from the vine whereas the leaves of Discorea japonica emerge from the vine as opposing pairs.

The air potato (Discorea bulbifera) is one we have introduced but as yet have not succeeded in growing it as a perennial – our winters are just a little too cold but by replanting in a slightly warmer micro-climate we may get there. You may be wondering, if it is not a wild food and not even a perennial why am I mentioning it? Just so I can show you a photo of the size difference between the aerial tubers of the Discorea bulbifera [left] and Discorea japonica. Air potatoes indeed!

air potato (Discorea bulbifera) and mukago (Discorea japonica)

Summer, in the Shade

August 27, 2012

As the summer rolls on so too does the succession of wild edibles. The height of summer is often thought to be a relatively barren time for foraging but here, wild foods continue to comprise a significant proportion of our diet at this time. It has been hot, really hot, so our preference is for lurking in the cool moist shade of the trees. A preference shared by many of the wild foods to be found at this time of the year.

A couple of weeks back we held a ‘simple living’ workshop at Shikigami [view photos of the event here] with participants wild harvesting ingredients for the weekends meals. They were surprised – as are most of our visitors – at the abundance and diversity of wild edible plants here. We first introduced them to inutade (Polygonum longisetum), a relatively new one for us too and one that has quickly become a much respected and appreciated summer food. (While I think very highly of the Plants for a Future site and use it often the ‘edibility ratings’ on the site should not be taken too seriously. The entry on Polygonum longisetum is a case in point: it is given an edibility rating of 1 (out of 5). These edibility ratings are subjective, of course, but further, plants are often rated on hearsay rather than from the direct experience of the articles authors. Polygonum longisetum is far better than the designation of ‘famine food’ given it on the site. I would give it at least a 3 out of 5.)

inutade (Polygonum longisetum)
(Polygonum longisetum)

Inutade is a mucilaginous herb growing to 50 – 100cm and one of the dominant ground covers at this time of year. We eat the leaves and the tender tips of the stalks both raw and cooked. As you can see in the photograph above it has quite distinctive dark markings on the leaves. There are a number of related species that carry these markings also. There is one species here with leaves considerably narrower than those pictured but very similar in taste to inutade. Another related species, that carries somewhat similar markings but has a very different leaf shape, is mizosoba (Polygonum thunbergii) and it is extremely bitter. The leaves of inutade alternate from a single stem which ranges in colour from olive green to red. From the nodes, where the leaf attaches to the stem, fine white hairs grow.

not inutade
Mizosoba (Polygonum thunbergii)

We also introduced the workshop participants to wild pesto. (And it is to my dear friends Karin and Cath back in Aotearoa that I have to thank for introducing me to this particular culinary delight.) As the late vegetalista Frank Cook observed, pesto is not so much a specific recipe as it is a genre. So then, what comprises this genre of pesto? Some green stuff, some garlic-like stuff, some nuts, parmesan (optional), all very finely chopped and mixed with olive oil and perhaps a dash of salt. The classic formula of basil, garlic, pine nuts and parmesan is but one way. On this occasion our pesto contained walnuts, parmesan, ushihakobe (a chickweed), tsubokusa (gotu kola), plantain, aomizu (in the Urticaceae, or nettle family and one to which I shall return later), chidomegusa (lawn pennyroyal), clover, oregano…and probably some other plants that I can’t recall right now.

Making wild pesto
Making wild pesto

Wild pesto
Peel and crush the garlic (I use about two cloves for every generous handful of greens but then, I eat a lot of raw garlic. You’ll quickly discover the quantity that suits you). Place a handful of greens on the garlic and begin chopping. As you are chopping keep scraping all the ingredients from the chopping board back in to a pile. Once the plant material is well chopped (does not need to be super fine at this stage) add another handful of greens and repeat the process until all the greens have been added. By this stage, with the repeated chopping as new greens were added, the leaves and garlic should be quite finely cut. Chop the nuts of your choice coarsely, sprinkle them over your pile of finely chopped leaves and garlic and continue to chop. Once the nuts have been reduced to small pieces (but before they have become dust) add grated parmesan (optional) and chop this into very small pieces too. The idea throughout this process is that by chopping the ingredients on top of the previously added ingredients they all get mixed up rather nicely as you achieve the desired fineness for a good pesto (in my humble opinion having it all mashed to a pulp in a blender does not make for good pesto – but as you like). Place your mixture in a bowl, adding salt to taste, then add the olive oil – just enough to achieve the desired consistency if you plan to eat the pesto immediately. If you have made more than you can eat immediately place the remainder in a jar and add more olive oil to just cover the pesto. This should keep for at least a week or two refrigerated (I’m guessing here as I tend to make it fresh each time).

Two attendees of the workshop showed an extreme aversion to garlic and all members of the Allium genus and so experimented further with the basic recipe. Using the same greens they substituted ginger for garlic, sesame oil for olive oil and sesame paste for parmesan. The result…absolutely delicious.

Aomizu (Pilea mongolica syn. pumila, Canadian clearweed), one of the pesto ingredients mentioned above, is another cherished summer green, making regular appearances in our salads of the past month. It is a member of the nettle family and the Japanese name aomizu (green water plant) gives you a good idea of where to look for it. A small annual with a preference for shady, moist places. The leaves look and taste very similar to koakaso (Boehmeria spicata), another member of the nettle family that I have written about previously here and here.

Aomizu (Pilea mongolica)
Aomizu (Pilea mongolica)

Myōga (Zingiber mioga) of the ginger family is a plant native to Japan and Korea that is a popular ingredient in the cuisine of both countries. Its popularity has led to its wide cultivation but it can still be found wild or, once introduced to an appropriate site, let go wild. It is a great plant for forest gardens as it grows well in full or partial shade.

Myoga_Zingiber mioga
Myōga (Zingiber mioga)

In Japan it is often pickled or used in miso soup. The flower buds are the most commonly used part of the plant though the young shoots are eaten too. The flower buds appear at ground level – not on the above ground parts of the plant – so a bit of crawling around on the soil might be necessary. Even if not necessary it is fun and…uhh…grounding.

A stand of myōga left alone will soon fill up the available space with a subsequent reduction in the number of flower buds produced. A bit of disruption to the soil now and then (something the wild pigs usually do a reasonable job of) will increase the number of flower buds produced each year. Here we have summer and autumn flowering varieties.

Myoga (Zingiber mioga) flowerbud
Myōga flowerbud

Myōga pickles
Combine rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Guess the amount of vinegar you’ll need to cover the quantity of myōga you have (when in a jar) and add sugar and salt to taste. Bring the vinegar mixture to a boil and remove from heat. Cut the myōga flowerbuds in half and dip in boiling water for about thirty seconds to a minute, drain and place the myōga in a jar. Cover the myōga, while it is still hot, with the vinegar mixture then let the jar cool to room temperature before putting the lid on. Best kept refrigerated or in a very cool dark place.

An Affluence of Sleep

July 15, 2012

Month four in a twelve month journal of the wild foods we are eating. Previous posts in this series can be found here.

Roused from a midday sleep by hunger I grab a bowl, don a wide-brimmed straw hat and head out to gather a salad.

First I make my way to patches of ushihakobe (“cow chickweed”) and tsuyukusa (Asiatic dayflower), gathering generous quantities to bulk up the salad. Then on to chidomegusa (lawn pennyroyal) and tsubokusa (gotu kola), passing a nasturtium I pluck a few flowers and a handful of leaves, doing the same with shirotsumekusa (white clover). A few leaves of suiba (sorrel), a good handful of shiso leaves, shiroza (lambs quarters) and  amaransasu (amaranth). Moving from the clearing where I have been gathering these sun loving plants I make my way toward the shady forest edge looking for sumire (violet). Passing oobako (plantain) sprouting new leaves I gather a bunch of the small tender light-green new growth (all the more tender for growing in dappled shade).  After collecting sumire and katabami (wood sorrel) I investigate a patch of myoga – still a little early for the flowerbuds, I move on. Skirting the forest edge I pick young koakoso (nettle family) leaves then back in to the sun I gingerly take a few azami (thistle) leaves – these with prickly spines which I shall trim off with scissors later. Ambling back towards the house I gather some leaves of mint, nira (garlic chives), comfrey, mukuge (rose of sharon), lemon balm and lemon verbena, parsley and oregano.

Back inside, having trimmed the spines from azami, I toss everything in a bowl and top with kurumi (walnuts) pickled in a honey vinegar and dress with yamamomo (Chinese bayberry) vinegar.

wild salad

A cup of suikazura (Japanese honeysuckle) flower tea in hand I return to horizontality and thumb through a book, recently read, looking for a passage in which an anthropologist suggests that one measure of a societies affluence might be the amount of daytime sleep afforded. Unable to locate the sentence I lay the book aside and go back to sleep.


Koakoso (Boehmeria spicata) I mentioned a couple of months back as a pot herb. I was less than enthusiastic about the taste but I have found a new love for this plant as a salad green. The light green young leaves make a really nice addition to a salad – their mild flavour making them suitable for bulking up more pungent plants. Shadier locations will likely yield a greater quantity of the tender young things.

koakosouKoakoso (Boehmeria spicata)

Ushihakobe (Stellaria aquatica) is a chickweed. It is not the chickweed (Stellaria media) but a closely related species that continues to grow vigorously through summer when hakobe (Stellaria media) is resting.

Ushihakobe (Stellaria aquatica)Ushihakobe (Stellaria aquatica)

Mukuge (rose of sharon, Hibiscus syriacus) is a plant of Asian origin (but not of Syrian, as Linnaeus thought when he named the plant). It is a large deciduous shrub (up to 3m x 2m) with edible leaves, flowers and roots. I haven’t seen it growing wild here (yet – hopefully some of our fifteen or so plantings will be happy enough with their locations to go wild – it is a prolific producer of seed so chances are good) but it is a common ornamental plant and therefore one for you urban foragers to look out for. Also, as ours are still small I have so far only tried the leaves which I like a lot: mild flavoured with a pleasantly mucilaginous texture. There is a flowering specimen growing in a private garden in the village but, tempting as it is, I am well aware that every time I cycle through the village there is at least one set of eyes following me (“that strange foreigner who lives deep in the mountains”).

mukuge (Hibiscus syriacus)A mukuge (Hibiscus syriacus) sapling

Katabami (Oxalis corniculata) is one of the many plants known to the English speaking world as wood-sorrel – their lemony tang being reminiscent of sorrel (Rumex spp.).  The intense lemon flavour of oxalis and rumex species, while pleasantly refreshing and uplifting, is due to the presence of oxalic acids and a good indicator that moderation should be exercised. Large bowlfuls everyday are not the way to eat this plant. Some leaves mixed through a salad being more the way to go.

Katabami (Oxalis corniculata)Katabami (Oxalis corniculata)

Shiso (Perilla frutescens) is, of course, the green leaf served as a garnish with sashimi and sushi (lately replaced by pieces of green plastic cut to vaguely resemble patches of grass). A really fantastic herb and all over the place! Don’t be timid with shiso. The flavour is mild enough to eat in quantity, it is nutritious and medicinal. Great as a salad leaf, or pickled in soy sauce and mirin, shiso pesto, shiso tea…. An annual that readily self-seeds to establish colonies and an excellent insectary plant, it’s a good candidate for scattering around in a forest garden, on abandoned land, city parks…. Green and purple varieties are common in Japan – the latter is not normally eaten fresh but is pickled and used in the making of umeboshi (pickled plums). Later in the year I’ll come back to shiso to talk about making use of the seeds.

Shiso (Perilla frutescens)Shiso (Perilla frutescens)

Shiso‘s medicine: antiasthmatic, antibacterial, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antitussive, aromatic, carminative, diaphoretic, emollient, expectorant, pectoral, stomachic, tonic.

Shiroza (lambs quarters, fat hen, Chenopodium album) and  amaransasu (amaranth, Amaranthus spp.) can be found growing wild throughout much of Japan. The young leaves of both are great in salads. Older leaves of shiroza can be boiled, steamed, added to soups etc. Both shiroza and amaransesu leaves are very nutritious. Both are weedy…let me rephrase that; both are important pioneer plants initiating processes of succession, thus enabling the return of forests – and so are also good candidates for seedballing barren sites or sunny openings of forest gardens.

Shiroza (Chenopodium album)amaranth (Amaranthus spp.)
Left: shiroza (Chenopodium album) and  right: amaransasu (Amaranthus spp.)

The dear old yamamomo (Myrica rubra) up the hill from our house has decided to give the fruit producing thing a miss this year but thankfully produced a good enough quantity last year for plentiful vinegar and wine making.

yamamomo (Myrica rubra)Yamamomo (Myrica rubra)

Yamamomo vinegar:

Mash up ripe fruit (the riper the better) and place in a well cleaned fermenting vessel (glass, ceramic, enamel coated metal but not uncoated metal as the acidity of the vinegar will eat in to it. My preference for cleaning such vessels is a strong antiseptic herbal tea such as sage, juniper, yarrow, kawakawa…). Dissolve sugar in water (about a quarter of a cup of sugar to 1 litre water. Use spring water if possible or, at least, water that has been boiled and let cool to around 40 degrees Celsius. The yeast on the skin of the yamamomo fruits, the beautiful microorganisms that are going to make this wonderful vinegar for you won’t appreciate it any hotter than that. Cover the fermenting vessel with a loose weave cloth and let sit stirring periodically (once a day is good). After about  a week strain out the fruit and continue to ferment. After about a month the vinegar will be ready but leaving it for longer may mellow it out nicely. You can make vinegar from most fruit this way.

Finally this month is himekouzo (Broussonetia kazinoki), a somewhat scrappy looking tree/shrub with alluring berries which can be eaten raw and are very tasty but every so often one will irritate the tongue and roof of the mouth with a long lasting itchy sensation. The berries have long hairs which are likely responsible for this but it is a little strange that while all himekouzo berries have these hairs only some cause a reaction. There seems to be no way of telling before you put the berry in your mouth either. The sensation is unpleasant enough to likely put most people off playing Russian roulette with the raw berries but there are other ways to use them. I have tried cooking them in a tapioca pudding but ended up with a bowl of itchiness so they need more than just cursory cooking. Although I have not tried making a jam with them yet I suspect the cooking and mashing up of the berries in the process would take care of the problem. Likewise, ( and also so far untested), cooking, mashing and making fruit leathers. What does work is making himekouzochū, that is, soaking the berries in shōchū, vodka or the like. A good vinegar can be made from them also.

himekouzo (Broussonetia kazinoki)himekouzo (Broussonetia kazinoki)
(Broussonetia kazinoki)

But the fruits are not the only edible part of this plant. The leaves are good cooked and the really young leaves can be eaten raw. The leaves do have a slight raspy texture but this is barely noticeable and nothing compared to the raspiness the berries can have. The flowers can also be eaten. Himekouzo is a close relative of kazhinoki (paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera) and, like that plant, fibre from the bark can be used to make paper, cloth and rope.

First Fruits

June 27, 2012

Post number three in a month by month guide to the wild foods we are eating here on the Izu peninsula, Japan. The first two can be seen here and here.

The spectacular beauty of the Japanese spring forest in flower has given way to a million shades of green. And from within the folds of lush green foliage the early summer fruits call. Breakfasts are no longer cooked but simply plucked.

Momijiichigo (Rubus palmatus var. coptophyllus) appears first. Golden yellow berries hidden under the leaves which give this plant its name, “maple leaved berry.” In the Rubus genus and thus related to raspberries and blackberries (there are at least 43 species in the Rubus genus growing wild in Japan, all edible!). When thickets are dense, canes scrambling over each other, the berries are generally small and few in number. At the edges, canes reaching upwards and into surrounding vegetation, larger berries may be found in greater numbers. But all too fleetingly.

momijiichigo (Rubus palmatus var. coptophyllus)momijiichigo leaves (Rubus palmatus var. coptophyllus)
Momijiichigo (Rubus palmatus var. coptophyllus)

The next to appear is kuwa (Mulberry, Morus spp.). Watching closely the slow transformation from hard tart red berries to delicious soft sweet black berries. The first few that ripen are never as good as what is to come but do an excellent job of whetting the appetite. Over the weeks the light smattering of berries turns into a downpour. The use of mulberry leaves for feeding silkworms has left a blessed legacy of mulberries everywhere! The road down to the village turns black at this time of year as the soft ripe fruits fall from overhanging trees.

mulberry Kuwa (Morus alba)

The fruit and bark of Morus alba (the preferred species for feeding silkworms, commonly called white mulberry – a name that does not refer to the fruit colour for its fruits are usually black when ripe) has long been used in Chinese medicine (constipation, diabetes, coughs, edema, fever, headaches, sore eyes, anti-bacterial, blood tonic) and now elicits much interest amongst modern medical researchers (anti-microbial activity against carcinogenic bacteria, anti-oxidant, neuroprotective, treatment of gout, food supplement for diabetics). Often referred to as “super-foods” (aren’t all natural foods super?) dried mulberries sell for premium prices in health food stores around the world. Of course, one of the underlying themes of this blog is that it is precisely by not being part of the planetary-work-machine that we access the good things in life. As I said, there are mulberries everywhere. Squashed in to the road by cars carrying workers.

Hot on the heels of kuwa we have biwa (loquat, Eriobotrya japonica). Also with a long and illustrious history of use in traditional east Asian medicine. Prized for its efficacy in healing a great variety of ailments, loquat was once a common planting on temple grounds in Japan serving as a sort of living community apothecary. Widely cultivated in Japan for at least the past one thousand years the tree was probably introduced from south-eastern China a lot earlier, finding its place amongst the forest mantle where it continues its wild existence today.

Loquats and Mountain Bird
‘Loquats and mountain bird,’ Anonymous, southern China

Monkeys love loquats and will patiently keep an eye on trees until the fruits are perfectly ripe (see my post Monkeys at 5). When golden-yellow, at their most succulent and sweet the monkeys will swoop down from the forest and gorge themselves. A small band of monkeys will ravage a whole tree in a matter of minutes – so you may have some stiff competition. (Deer also like loquats a lot but not being such great tree climbers will only browse low hanging fruit.)

If you gather a lot of loquats at one time you might try making some loquat wine, vinegar, or jam.  Keep the seeds to make a medicinal tincture (see below). If you’re not interested in making a tincture from the seeds then toss them around in places where young seedlings are unlikely to be cut in the vegetation mowing frenzy that grips rural Japan in the summer months. The edges of forests, abandoned farm land, in thickets of pioneer plants, around established trees etc. Loquats grow easily from seed (although not true to type – not so good if you’ve only got space for one tree in a small yard but a very good trait for continued vigour in the wild) and, as they offer medicine particularly needed in these times we would do well to encourage them. Loquats everywhere!

In Japanese folk medicine loquat fruit, seeds and leaves have long been used in the treatment of a wide range of disorders including the treatment of cancers. Unsurprisingly, modern research has found that the various parts of the plant contain many chemicals of great benefit in overcoming cancer. The activities of these chemicals include:

Antitumour promoter
Apoptotic (selectively programs cancer cells to die)
Cancer preventive
Protease inhibitor (inhibits tumour growth, possibly killing tumors)

For a complete list of loquats known chemical constituents, activities and ethnobotanical uses see James Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases.

The fruit is rich in vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants so simply eating the fruit in season will help maintain good health. As the Chinese say “A person is not sick because they have an illness, they have an illness because they are sick.” The seeds are usually used in the form of a tincture (steeped in alcohol). Simply fill a jar with fresh loquat seeds (some sources recommend cutting the seeds in halves or quarters while others use the seeds whole) and cover with white liquor such as vodka or shõchu (30 – 35% alcohol by volume). Ideally the seeds should steep in the alcohol for one year before use. This can be taken internally or used externally. As a treatment drinking a small amount (15 – 20mls) daily is often recommended. It tastes pretty good so even if not being used to treat a specific problem a glass now and then goes down a treat (I am enjoying a little nip of medicine as I write). Externally, apply the tincture to bruises or sore areas, burns, scars, bites etc.

The leaves are the most commonly used part of the loquat plant for medicinal purposes. In moxabustion a burning stick or cone made of ground mugwort (yomogi, Artemisia vulgaris) is pressed into a loquat leaf laid against the skin. Even without the moxa stick the leaf can be used for many complaints simply by laying it against the skin (shiny side in contact with the skin) and applying a little heat, from a container filled with hot water, for example or, just letting your own body heat do the work. Use the leaves in this way for the treatment of internal problems. For example, leaves laid against the kidneys can help relieve urinary tract infections, leaves placed over the eyes or on the forehead can relieve sore eyes and headaches.

Another great way to use the leaves, both as a regular tonic and as a specific treatment, is in the form of an infusion or tea. The two most common ways of producing loquat “tea” are the simple drying of leaves or fermenting slightly before drying. Use older leaves as the young leaves contain small amounts of toxins. They can be harvested at any time of the year although the preferred harvest time for leaves in Japan is mid-summer. To dry: wipe the leaves clean with a damp cloth and spread them out to dry slowly in shade. Leaves can be cut after cleaning to speed up drying although in very humid environments this may result in some fermentation. To ferment: chop the cleaned leaves roughly and leave sitting in a bowl covered with a clean cloth for two or three days before spreading out to dry in shade. The fermented leaves have a deeper more robust taste which I prefer as an everyday tea but for medicinal purposes either method is satisfactory – as is using fresh green leaves without any drying. If whole leaves have been dried crumble them in to the teapot before covering with hot water.

kudzu leaveskudzu shoot
Kudzu (Pueraria lobata)

Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is yet another plant highly valued in Japan both as medicine and food. While it is usually the root of kudzu that receives the most attention all parts of the plant have their uses and at this time of year kudzu leaves are one of our main leafy green vegetables. The leaves are very nutritious with high antioxidant activity. Being a little on the tough side we usually cut the leaves into strips and boil them. Try kudzu leaves chopped and briefly boiled then sauté with cumin, garlic, salt and olive oil. The leaves are a little fuzzy but this fuzz wilts when cooked. To wilt the fuzz for eating the leaves raw dip them in boiling water for a second then dip in cold water. The tips of the vine can also be eaten either raw or cooked.

Another leaf we have been eating plentifully of this past month is tsubokusa (Centella asiatica). Back in May we had a visit from Ladia and Amy of Permaculture Perak in Malaysia and while we were out foraging for our dinner Ladia spotted a herb familiar from their tropical forest home. It was not one I recognized and neither the botanical name, Centella asiatica, nor the Malay or English common names, daun pegaga and Indian pennywort, rang any bells. It was only later when looking the plant up that I came across one name by which this plant is known of which I was very familiar. The name given this plant by the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka is gotu kola. Now, if you too are familiar with that name you are probably also aware that this is yet another highly considered medicinal plant. It is an important herb in traditional African and Chinese medicine as well as the Ayurvedic tradition.

Tsubokusa (Centella asiatica)Tsubokusa (Centella asiatica)

When Ladia first spotted tsubokusa the plants seemed to be quite few and far between – we had difficulty finding enough to contribute much to the meal – but over the past month great patches of it have started to appear and one right at our front door! We have mostly been eating the young leaves and stems raw in salads although on occasion cooked – usually boiled or steamed briefly. But experimentation is called for. For inspiration we have the cuisines of India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam….

If you’re interested in the medicinal uses of this plant again I suggest looking at James Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. A search of the ethnobotanical uses will likely provide enough information. However, if you’re really interested you can then wade through the list of the hundreds of identified chemicals and their known activities.

Tsuyukusa “rainy season flower” (Commelina communis, Asiatic dayflower) is another green we eat often through the start of summer. The plant spreads horizontally growing close to the ground with upright tips. It will often be found on exposed soils such as cultivated garden beds. It likes sunny spots and often appears at forest edges and around paddies or other wet areas.

Tsuyukusa (Commelina communis)
Tsuyukusa (Commelina communis)

The leaves are smooth when stroked from the stem towards the leaf tip but raspy when stroked from tip towards stem, have parallel veins and are slightly mucilaginous. Pinch off the tips of the plant with young leaves, shoots, little blue flowers, and stalk and eat raw, lightly steamed or boiled.

Azami (Cirsium spinosum), or thistles,  have all that spiny protection for a reason: to protect a soft succulent, nutritious and delicious stem. Cut the thistle a little above ground level (the lowest parts of the stem tend to be too tough and the bigger the plant the higher you may need to cut), then peel off the thick skin to get to the tender hollow stalk. The very outer layer of tough skin comes off easily but there is a second layer of fibrous skin that requires more patience to remove (food meditation). Once down to the soft stalk it can be eaten raw or cooked. Raw it has a really nice texture somewhere between a crunchy cucumber and celery.

azami (Cirsium spinosum)Azami (Cirsium spinosum)

The youngest leaves can also be eaten. At the very top of the stalk the leaves will likely contain no spines yet and can be eaten as is. A little lower down the spines, with cooking, will soften to become unnoticeable when eaten. Experience will teach you how low you can go. As far as I am aware all thistles (Carduus, Cirsium, and Onopordum spp.) are edible though the palatability of different species may vary widely. What I can say for sure is that Azami (Cirsium spinosum) is not only palatable but delicious. All parts of the plant are edible too and I will surely write about them when the time for harvesting comes around.

Sanshou seed (Zanthoxylum piperitum)Sanshõ (Zanthoxylum piperitum)

In my last post I talked about eating the young leaves of sanshõ. Right at the end of May we were also harvesting the immature seed pods for making sanshõ no tsukudani. They should be green and still relatively soft when squeezed. The immature seeds/pods, like the young leaves, are rather intense so a small quantity will go a long way. To make sanshõ no tsukudani: Boil the green sanshõ seed pods for a short time, remove from heat and leave to soak in the cooking water for a while. After soaking strain the seed pods and discard the cooking water, return to the pot and cover with soy sauce and mirin (sweet cooking sake). Bring to a boil and simmer gently until until the liquid has almost completely evaporated. Refrigerated sanshõ no tsukudani should keep a long time.

Another seed we are currently gathering is shazenshi, the seeds of oobako (Plantago spp., plantain). Although small shazenshi can be gathered quite easily in quantity. Bend a mature seed stalk over a container holding seed stalk in place with the same hand that holds the container and with the fingers of your other hand gently comb or rub the stalk. All the mature seeds should drop easily from the stalk into the container. The seeds are easily winnowed by pouring between bowls in a moderate breeze. The chaff is soft so it is not even necessary to winnow thoroughly.

Being small seeds shazenshi will likely pass straight through the body if eaten raw so, to get the nutritional benefits of shazenshi they are best roasted a little, ground or baked – for example, added to flour when baking bread. The seeds are mucilaginous and can be used as a thickener for soups and stews. (The whole seed stalk and flowers can also be used for this purpose).

shazenshi plantain seedsshazenshi plantain seeds and hulls
Oobako (Plantago asiatica) seed stalk and harvested seeds (shazenshi) with seed hulls

All parts of oobako (Plantago spp.) can be used medicinally and as food. The plant is astringent, demulcent, emollient, cooling, vulnerary, expectorant, antimicrobial, antiviral, antitoxin, and diuretic. I often use it on cuts to speed healing and prevent infection. Simply chew up a leaf or two and apply to the wound as a poultice. Probably also quite effective for treating sores, blisters, insect bites and stings, hemorrhoids, burns, rashes, skin irritations etc. The leaves have a delicious nutty flavour and are a great addition to salads. We eat them almost throughout the year but through May and June, as the seed stalks emerge and the seeds form and mature, the leaves become rather tough.

As always there are many other plants we have been gathering this month but I shall leave it at that for now. Food and medicine everywhere!

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!