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.
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.
What 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).
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.
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!