From ages past, foraging for wild greens has been a steady part of the Japanese culture. The Emperors of the Heian and Nara periods made it a rule to collect wild greens from the forests so that the harvest could be predicted.
The practice of collecting wild vegetables was what enabled Japanese to survive in times of natural disaster and war. During the second world war when Tokyo residents fled the city for the rural areas they relied on wild greens for sustenance.
Sansai or “mountain vegetables” are edible plants that grow wild throughout the forests and fields of rural Japan. People might wonder–why take the trouble to forage when vegetables can be easily purchased? The answer lies in a deep rooted part of the rural life-style and traditional Japanese cuisine which involves eating seasonal foods. But it is more than just eating seasonal foods–it is living in harmony with the natural world. Seasonal eating has three parts: hashiri, shun and nagori. Hashiri ingredients are those that are “early and rare” and must be taken at just the right time. Shun ingredients are at their peak of the growing season and have the highest nutritional value and nagori is the rather sad / melancholy feeling that the season has almost passed. These three elements are woven into the culture of sansai.
This cycle is continuous throughout every season and is an important part of the practice of gathering, preparing and eating sansai. We think of this cycle as we enjoy and appreciate the gifts of nature.
Intrinsic in the gathering of wild edibles is the appreciation for the natural world which is so evident in the way seasonal dishes are so carefully prepared and arranged. It is an essential part of the rural Japanese kitchen. While it is true that many sansai are now available in supermarkets, it is still very much a part of the rural culture to go into the fields and woodlands to gather by hand. In our cottage gardens we have domesticated seasonal vegetables but, in the wild there are a myriad of seasonal greens, mushrooms, nuts and berries that are available and are an important part of the seasonal cuisine.
While we are out gathering, our bodies are in tune with the subtle changes of the seasons. We hear the call of the uguisu–the Japanese bush warbler–and our bodies resonate with the sounds of spring. In autumn we are alert to the buzzing of bees and the smell of decaying leaves. We notice the different insects and can sense the subtle shift from one season to the next.
This is all a part of foraging. It is the “ki” or life force all around us and this is what we bring into our homes when we gather food in the wild.
In Japan it is said there are two reasons that we eat: One is to fill our empty stomach but the second reason and most important is to nourish our hearts and souls. The character for “eat” is consists of the 2 kanjis. The top kanji for person and the bottom kanji for nourish. We nourish the heart with seasonal sansai.
The top line means person. The bottom character means nourish.
In essence when we gather, prepare and serve sansai we bring the ki of nature into our homes to nourish us and we partake of the seasons and the gifts of the natural world. That is also why we never pick more than we can eat. We take enough for today and then come back tomorrow if we need to.
There are many different kinds of wild edible plants, nuts, berries, roots and mushrooms in Japan. Some are difficult to find and others are prolific, growing everywhere in the Japanese countryside.
Warabi: A type of bracken.
Tsukushi: Known as horsetail in English are two of the more popular early spring sansai.
There is also nanohana. In early spring nanohana begin to cover the fields and edges of woodlands and soon there will be carpets of brilliant yellow everywhere.
It is common to see people walking down the country roads carrying handfuls of foraged nanohana home to prepare for a spring meal.
When picking nanohana you want to choose the stems with flowers that have not opened yet. Once the flowers have opened they become woody and not suitable for eating.
The nanohana are washed well in a basin of water and then boiled for about two minutes, drained and then refreshed with cold water and left to drain a bit. Then they are squeezed to remove excess water. Squeezing is a common technique used in preparing vegetables.
After the nanohana are squeezed they are cut in the smaller pieces. Seasoning as with all Japanese sansai is simple. Nanohana are enjoyed drizzled with sesame oil and citrus-soy-sauce.
A lovely and simple dish that brings the early spring into the kitchen and home, nourishing our hearts and souls with the “ki” of the season.