I need to do a bit of research at the moment on Japanese cookery. Particularly the use of Japanese spring mountain vegetables or Sansai (山菜). There are a couple of reasons for this: Firstly, these are predominately perennial plants gathered from the wild in Japan (or at least that was the case originally) and I am interested in perennial plant food sources. Secondly, the climate in the mountains of Japan is a little cooler than elsewhere in Japan and these plants are likely to do OK in the UK.
Typically sansai are the fresh sprouts of leaves and flowers of perennial plants and trees that are cut and eaten when young. Many of the plants are already grown in the UK as ornamental garden plants, and most Britons do not know that they can also be eaten. As we also know, everything can be edible once, and edible does not always mean tasty.
For example there are believed to be links between the eating of warabi (bracken ferns, pteridium aquilinum) and various cancers, although this site says that prepared correctly, and eaten in moderation, they are both delicious and safe. My mum says she tried bracken fern only once, so I guess she was not impressed, but maybe she did not prepare it correctly. I think I may give it a miss just now though. I do love to see it at this time of year as the bracken angels unfurl. Eating it as I weed out the young shoots could be tempting!
I’ve found a couple of lists of sansei online: shizuoka gourmet and organic growers school for example, although some of these are not necessarily spring vegetables. These are the plants I am most tempted by, with the Japanese vegetable name if known:
Indian cucumber root Medeola virginiana
Ostrich fern Matteucia struthiopteris, kogomi
Honewort Cryptotaenia canadensis, mitsuba
Bamboo Phyllostachys spp.
Japanese spikenard, Aralia cordata udo and yamaudo (bundle of blanched shoots) see here for example
Japanese pepper tree Zanthoxylum piperitum kinome
Angelica tree shoots Aralia elata tara no me
Japanese sweet coltsfoot, giant butterbur (unopened buds), Petasites japonicus giganteus, fukinoto
Plantain lily Hosta fortunei kiboushi, Hosta montana urui, and Hosta sieboldiana
Glory bower peanut butter shrub Clerodendron harlequin kusagi
Indian plantain Cacalia delphiniifolia, C. hastata ssp. orientalis shidoke, or momijigasa
I already have varieties similar to the following:
Solomon’s seal Polygonatum commutatum and P. odoratum amadokoro
Arrowhead Sagittaria latifolia
Chocolate vine (fruit) Akebia
Dogtooth violet Erythronium japonicum katakuri
Orange daylily Hemerocallis fulva Nokanzou
Japanese ginger Zingiber mioga, Mioga
Japanese horseradish, Wasabia japonica, Wasabi
Most of these are still being established so I am yet to try some of them. The wapato tubers are slimy to clean, but taste innocuous like potatoes when cooked. Solomons seal shoots were very bitter – I only cut a couple of shoots, so next year I will try changing the water. Beneath the bitterness there was a sweet taste so I think they are worth trying again.
I’m not sure whether we will like wasabi, normally we’re not big eaters of mustard or horseradish, however when I read about it, wasabi seems to like conditions very similar to Skye’s normal weather – never above 15 celsius or below 5 celsius and wet all the time! All it will require is protection from the strong winds. Having an interest in expensive dining (having the three chimneys restaurant just over the hill from us) I thought it would be fun to try anyhow. I have sourced plants from two different UK sources (hopefully about 4 varieties in total). These I have put in an old wooden tub. I changed half the compost for fresh peat free commercial compost. The old stuff had been half and half soil and compost. Mixed in, I hope it will be good enough for the wasabi plants. They haven’t keeled over and died straight away, so I am hopeful that the bit of afternoon sun they will get on this corner of the house won’t be too much for them. I tried a bit of leaf and stem, and these were surprisingly mild in flavour, so perhaps we will get to eat some of the harvest after all!