Friday, May 4, 2018

Foodies of forest: Eating spring wild herbs from forests of Kanagawa Prefecture

Wikipedia <Spring Ephemeral>

Spring ephemeral describes a life habit of perennial woodland wildflowers which develop aerial parts (i.e. stems, leaves, and flowers) of the plant early each spring and then quickly bloom, and produce seed. The leaves often wither leaving only underground structures (i.e. roots, rhizomes, and bulbs) for the remainder of the year. This strategy is very common in herbaceous communities of deciduous forests as it allows small herbaceous plants to take advantage of the high levels of sunlight reaching the forest floor prior to formation of a canopy by woody plants. Examples include: spring beauties, trilliums, and harbinger of spring.

i.e. Strictly speaking, the word is for the herbaceous in deciduous forests. Though, in Japan, it seems to me it is generally used to explain quick changes of spring plants in general. Hmmmm. In our climate, the wild forest is of evergreen broad-leaved trees. Strategy for sunshine during early spring does not always work for the forest floor here. By spring ephemeral we Japanese simply refer the patchwork of infinite gradations in spring forest greens. Some are deep green of ever-green trees. Even they have delicately reddish hues for leaves when old leaves are replaced by young buds. Of course, fresh light lime of deciduous trees is also dotting the slope of mountains that will soon become more robust green for photosynthesis in early summer. Many violets flower in March and by mid-April they are all stems and seeds in Yokohama. Ephemeral … Humans have another reason to call forest plants evanescent in spring of Japan. During a very short window of time, for about 3 weeks or so, we can collect young leaves of various plants in Japanese forest, to eat.

Typical spring ephemeral in Japanese forest.
Yeah, violets are also edible.

I of course tell you there are lots of poisonous plants in Japanese forests. In early spring of Tanzawa, wolf’s bane shows off their young and fresh leaves next to pretty violets. You can eat it, only once in your lifetime, and you’ll be gone to 6 feet under. But if you know the place and the things damned well, you can discern young leaves of Parasenecio delphiniifolius, momijigasa in Japanese, from monkshood. Momijigasa is edible. They are good for tempura, or we steam and dress them with walnut-based source. You see? Collecting edible spring ephemeral always has such risks. I have not done that before. Now I become an apprentice for forest instructor in Kanagawa Prefecture, and our seniors invited us for “Collecting wild spring herbs 101” in a permitted area of prefectural land.

Wolf’s bane. Oh so poisonous …

Before participating in the lesson, I had a vague idea of picking spring herbs would be like harvesting cherry tomato in vegetable garden. Nope. They are ephemerals. Some of them, like angelica trees, Japanese pepper, or Akbia kinata are trees. We have to look up to find their young leaves. But many of them, including tiny young trees of Araliaceae, are dotting almost at the ground level within a forest. In early spring many of them are tiny young leaves, if not buds. Gathering them is like mentally sweeping the forest floor to spot the quarry. They are easily uprooted from the ground. “Oh, no, no. Don’t pluck them out! We have to leave them for next springs. Just collect leaves here and there. Never exterminate!” It’s a quiet, delicate and meditative work. I realized the reason why there are so many accidents among pickers of spring ephemeral. We can concentrate too much for collecting the leaves and lose the way in deep forests, or suddenly meet with bear fact-to-face. The activity provokes such attentiveness. And I tell you, it was a fun!

An invitation to be lost in a forest …
No, no, no, keep your cool head!

Eating edible spring ephemeral requires not only picking but also identifying correctly safe greens. Take Japanese honewort, or mitsuba in Japanese. In spring forests of Kanagawa, there are honeworts and many other, often in Ranunculaceae family, 3-leaved plants. Meditative concentration in quiet forest often confuses our eyes and we can throw in leaves of Ranunculaceae in a bag for honewort. Ranunculaceae is poisonous. “So, we have to check bags for mitsuba carefully. You see, this one certainly has 3 leaves but each leaf has a longish stem. It’s not mitsuba. We have to discard it. Or, take this one. Turn the leaf, and we can see the vein definitely different from that for mitsuba … It’s to garbage bin.” Japanese honewort can be served as salad leaves, or lightly steam them to coat with soy-source based vinaigrette. Steamed mitsuba can render a sort of subtle but noble aroma more than its raw leaves so that we Japanese prefer cooking them to including in the salad. When we steam the washed bunch from “mitsuba bag,” Japanese honewort turns in to clear green, but we can spot some odd colored leaves in the pan. “Woops, it’s not mitsuba! Remove, remove!”

All important sorting process
To be thrown away

Often, edible spring ephemerals have a distinctive bitterness, weak or strong. Japanese mugwort, Yomogui in Japanese, is edible with refreshing aroma when it is still young leaves. It’s a kind of must-have ingredient for spring sweets in our cuisine. Though, for salad, its bitterness is decidedly for acquired taste. For more general version, we boil it with salt or baking soda for about 5-6 minute until it becomes very soft. Then, they have to be soaked in cold water for at least half a day to remove strong bitterness. Finally, we have to grind or finely mince them to nullify their fibrous texture. The finished product can be mixed even in cookie dough. “Er, it’s a kind of evidence how foodie we are, isn’t it?” Collecting, sorting, preparing, and cooking spring herbs are not throwing a frozen pizza in oven. It’s definitely more thrilling and, I tell you, delicious. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

A part of what we’ve collected
And our feast!
 I found when cooked Allium macrostemon became very mild compared with commercial onions.

In traditional Japanese cooking spring ephemerals are for tempura or steamed side dishes with soy source. Though, I found using them with pasta was also delicious. If we could collect enough of them, making pesto or condiments for roasted meat would be also an option. Let me think about it for next spring. I have 1 year to strategize our next spring dinner. 😋

I cooked Saxifraga stolonifera for another occasion.
 My recipe is
 (1) boil the leaves with salt until they become tender.
 (2) Soak the boiled leaves for 15-20 minutes in cold water.
 The longer you soak, the lesser the bitterness of the leaves is.
(3) Julienne the leaves and coated them with walnut source
 (3g of mashed walnuts + 1 tsp of soy-source + 1 tsp of mirin).

Oh, by the way, entering in a forest without permission of landlords is trespassing in Japan. If you collect anything in such case, you’ll be arrested as a thief. So be very reasonable, please.

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