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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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‘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.
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.
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.
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.
July 13, 2012
Basic Skills for Simple Living
A guided tour of our site and explanation of our approach to forest gardening, natural farming and various aspects of living simply. For more info in English see here or for Japanese info see here.
July 3, 2012
With the sliding doors open, my brother and I sat with the view and scent of an idyllic forest garden. After spending almost two weeks as a visitor here at Shikigami, nestled between wooded hills, on the Pacific coast of Honshu Island, Japan, I found amidst familiar rhythms, endless variety and nuance. Whether lighting a handful of brittle foliage to fire the rocket stove, following a meandering garden path to collect a colander of leafy greens, sitting at a bend in the stream listening to water snag rocks, drinking fragrant tea from a hand thrown cup, or watching the flicker of a large cosmically-dark butterfly blur your vision. Within the space of close attention, no two moments are alike, life is in constant flux.
The view beyond this forest garden is of a hillside cleared of its native vegetation for the purposes of plantation timber. This land is no longer biodiverse, and just one repercussion of this, is that the topography here, as in many other parts of Japan, is in perpetual danger of sliding away after heavy rain. While some surface erosion is common on steeply pitched slopes, landslides, which are much more destructive, are predominately caused by disruption of native habitat. It is a cycle of degradation. Mono-cultures with no ground cover, lacking inputs of organic mass (to decay back into soil), create non-resilient, depleted soils and give rise to weak rooted trees (which ironically here, have also proven to be an economic failure).
A task which happily coincided with my stay, was to harvest the first, second and third leaves of the Camellia sinensis, and process – employing heat and one’s hands – these mildly fragrant leaves into an aromatic Kamairicha (tea). As we worked and talked, hands stained lightly green, the conversation took an apocalyptic turn. Enter futurist and robotocist, Hans Moravec.
Moravec, born 1948, Austria, desires – amongst other things – to abandon the human body. The very body that at that precise moment, was coordinating itself to roll excess moisture from clumped leaves, while simultaneously revelling in, and calibrating to the fine sensations of the day. A clenching seized my gut as I struggled to digest what was being relayed – mind downloading / uploading (into a remote and artificial body) – the mind a digital ‘architecture’ supplanting the need of an ‘analogue’ flesh. In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nation (1991) Jerry Mander provides an overview of Moravec’s whacked, dangerous and nihilistic aspirations. As I listened to the reading of a few excerpts, Mander’s words oscillated between reality and unreality, terminating eventually, with an existential chill, only half real inside my head.
Forays into virtual reality and telepresence – as mediated through ‘remote’ robotic bodies, are merely a fledgling phase in the enhancement of our ‘capabilities’;
The remote bodies we will inhabit can be stronger, faster and have better senses than our “home” body. In fact, as our home body ages and weakens, we might compensate by turning up some kind of “volume control”. Eventually, we might wish to bypass our atrophied muscles and dimmed senses altogether, if neurobiology learns enough to connect our sensory and motor nerves directly to electronic interfaces. Then all the harness hardware could be discarded as obsolete, along with our sense organs and muscles, and indeed most of our body. There would be no “home” experiences to return to, but our remote and virtual existences would be better than ever.
– Hans Moravec
The human – following on from an untidy, unwieldy and resistant ‘nature’, is a thing (obviously also a ‘natural thing’ and subject to the same laws of decay?) to be manipulated, moulded, controlled and transcended.
…the brain is a biological machine not designed to function forever, even in an optimal physical environment. As it begins to malfunction, might we not choose to use the same advanced neurological electronics that make possible our links to the external world, to replace the gray matter as it begins to fail? Bit by bit our brain is replaced by electronic equivalents, which work at least as well, leaving our personality and thoughts clearer than ever. Eventually everything has been replaced by manufactured parts.
– Hans Moravec
Aging and death are increasingly seen as pathologies, and not as natural processes. Subsequently, these degenerative processes are being treated ever more liberally, with intricate, and experimental technologies. Death – for the anti-aging movement, for futurists, and within medical science itself (with its predilection for quantity (lifespan) over quality) – is being conceived of – if not as surmountable, then at the very least as something to be postponed. Moravec’s sketch for a ‘postbiological’ future; The human as cyborg, is merely on the extreme (and logical?) end of this technological thinking.
The U.S. military plans to implant soldiers with medical devices [utilising nanotechnology], making them harder to kill with diseases……………..Stanford University researchers are developing tiny robotic monitors that can diagnose illnesses, monitor vital stats and even deliver medicine into the bloodstream, similar to the devices that the military plans to create.
At the risk of affording Moravec any more space on the page, the cult of immortality to which he subscribes (alongside notable futurist peers: Kurzweil, Minsky, Warwick et al) has numerous, extant and future implications, not in the least because the very technology that is most salient for futurists: nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, simulated reality, robotics……is current research fodder of many prestigious, mainstream, research laboratories across the world, or else it has already obtained either nascent or broad application within the public realm. That this technology comes with myriad, little understood risks, and with unpredictable consequences, ranging from the relatively benign to the catastrophic, should be a prompt for concern, as should the fact that every other interest on this planet is excluded, barring one – the human.
Tired of discussing M______, and his apocalyptic future (which he gives about even probability of coming about), we left the house, and walked a short distance, on a dirt path, into the bamboo grove. As we dug out a few of the freshest shoots – the smell of wild pig in the air, the bamboo colliding in a light percussive music – the day’s lightness insinuated itself back into my flesh. This living was no less intense for knowledge of the inevitable – everything sliding toward a destiny – that we are again, to become food for this earth.
(This piece was first published for the exhibition Projections by Alex Rizkalla – Place Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, July 2012)
 All the local materials (of the earth) will be plundered and turned into machines, and these ‘conscious’ artificially intelligent robots, far superior, physically and intellectually to the human, will at the very best treat humanity benignly, as a curiosity, a relic of the past.
 Moravec,H. (1992) ‘Pigs in Cyberspace.’
 Knibbs, K, March 21, 2012, Mobiledia. Accessed 25/6/12
 Moravec, regarded as a pioneer of the robotics industry, helped establish The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he currently holds the position of adjunct professor. The Robotics Institute, known as R.I has a staff of 500 and a budget of 65 million (2012). MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL, is the largest on-campus laboratory in the US and was originally formed by the cognitive scientist/futurist Mervin Minsky in 1970 as an offshoot of his A.I group.
 Bostrom, N. (2002) ‘Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards’ and Bostrom, N. (2011) ‘Existential Risk Reduction as the Most Important Task for Humanity.’PDF
 Platt, C. (1995) ‘Superhumanism’, in Wired, Issue 3.10, October 1995.
June 27, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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:
Apoptotic (selectively programs cancer cells to die)
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 China, hanaikada (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).
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 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).
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.
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?
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…
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!