Back to My Roots: Foraging Wild Foods in Japan's Mountains
A Sansai safari with a knowledgeable guide in the forests of Nagano reveals a secret side of Japan, overflowing with abundant water and delicious natural food.
Sansai holds a special place in the hearts of many Japanese. A nostalgic word that invokes images of country life and living off the land, Sansai has at the same time become a culinary delicacy.
Translated as "mountain vegetable," the word Sansai is difficult to define but typically includes any edible plant foraged in the mountains. These flowers, leaves, stems, shoots, roots, and bulbs are organic, picked seasonally, nutritious, and, most importantly, delicious.
Although many cultures gather wild food, Japan - like so many things - takes this obsession to the next level.
Sustainable Forests, Delicious Yields
Japan has not always had such a positive relationship with foraged foods. While all humans used to hunt and gather, foraging remained longer in Japan because the steep mountains were not often well-suited for rice cultivation. As a result, people retained mixed feelings about Sansai throughout Japanese history.
Sansai kept people alive during bad harvests, famine, and war. But people also wanted to forget those painful memories, moving on to more dignified foods such as meat, vegetables, and white rice. Ironically, Sansai was both the favorite food of emperors and a means of survival.
Today, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction. People appreciate Sansai for its culinary delights, with many cooking methods, fusions, and flavors.
Japan's attitude towards sustainability is changing as well. Japan, seemingly lacking natural resources, is overflowing with food and water, the most important natural resources. The forest benefits from proper human management, which provides generous harvests for us to enjoy.
Meeting Kohei Nishida early in the morning at a convenience store, I hop into his 4WD K-truck. Kohei is an English-speaking guide in the area, taking people snowshoeing, hiking on the newly created Amatomi Trail, biking, and Sansai picking.
In addition to the thick rain boots, I notice the fat-tired E-bikes and helmets stacked in the truck and realize I am in for some rough terrain. But I am excited to learn.
Before we depart, I express my gratitude for Kohei's willingness to show me the ropes. Unfortunately, multiple people had refused the request to take me, not willing to reveal their secret Sansai stashes.
At first, I thought this was simply a desire to protect their hunting grounds. But as the day progresses, I realize how vulnerable Sansai is to overharvest and better understand their predicament.
In fact, many municipalities have implemented licenses and maximum amounts permitted to protect stocks and ensure an annual harvest.
First up is Kohei's favorite Udo spot, also known as mountain asparagus. Most people eat the leaves, but apparently, the root is delicious.
We scramble up the side of a mountain and find the hidden treasure, careful to take only one-third of the plants so the remainder can recuperate.
Descending, we happen upon some Plantain Lily, delicious in a salad. Sansai is like a box of chocolates ー you never know what you're gonna get.
Dunking the fresh Udo stems in an ice-cold stream and eating them right there, I see the comparison to asparagus and think, "this is way cooler than chocolate."
We change locations and pull out the E-bikes, ascending the winding forest road. Like a Sansai safari, we frequently stop upon sighting something interesting.
First, it's Kogomi, or ostrich ferns, sublime when boiled for a couple of minutes and dipped in sesame miso paste.
Next, we encounter Taranome, or Japanese Angelica. Delicious in tempura, Taranome is called the king of Sansai, and is especially vulnerable to overharvesting because each tree only produces a few shoots. Careful to only pick where Kohei approves, I think about dinner, and my stomach rumbles.
One Final Catch
Our final catch is a forest of Koshiabura, for which I am unable to find an English name. The Queen of Sansai is also good in tempura or cooked into rice called takikomi gohan.
Kohei tells me how to distinguish this from the similar-looking but inedible lacquer tree. Lacquer has a heart pattern stamped on the base of each branch. This is the kind of local knowledge you can only attain by going with someone who knows the terrain.
Lastly, we find a couple of rare Sansai, including the shoots of wild grape leaves and snow camelia, before returning to my car.
It's been an educational morning that makes me eager to visit again.
Japan, specifically Nagano, has one of the longest lifespans in the world. I can't help but think the combination of the exercise, nutritional content, and natural setting in foraging somehow contributes to this longevity. Of course, it's also a lot of fun.
For one last learning experience, we visit a local farmers' market selling vegetables and Sansai. Kohei himself sells here and tells me this is a valuable side hustle for farmers in the spring. I buy some items we didn't find on the trail and head home.
I want to support the local economy and increase the number of dishes for tonight's Sansai party.
The Sansai Party
I invite a few friends over and try to prepare the Sansai in as many different ways as possible. A small plate of Sansai can cost as much as ￥1,000 JPY (about $8 USD) in Tokyo. We have an all-you-can-eat Sansai buffet and feast like kings.
Tempura is the most popular way of preparing Sansai and removes much of the bitterness. The tempura dishes include Taranome, Koshiabura, Udo leaves, Fukinoto (butterbur), grape leaves, and some of the Kogomi.
Adding a pinch of salt or dipping the tempura in a light sauce brings out the flavor.
The remaining Kogomi we boil and dip in a miso mayonnaise dressing. Before the dinosaurs, ferns have been thriving on earth, and I feel like I am accessing this prehistoric energy.
Like on the mountain, we peel the Udo stems and dip them in miso. The taste and watery crunch remind us of celery sticks.
Some of the Fukinoto is chopped up and pan-fried with miso to make a dish called fukimiso. Fukimiso is delicious on rice accompanied by a cold beer.
We pan-fry the Udo leaves with bacon and soy sauce for a Sansai fusion dish. Like other vegetables, Sansai can be adapted to different cuisines and ingredients to keep things interesting.
I have enjoyed Sansai on numerous occasions, but picking it heightens my appreciation for these wild vegetables.
A couple of thoughts from the day stick out to me. First, Sansai has to be the world's healthiest type of food. Combining exercise with eating various natural, organic leafy greens straight from the forest must contribute to Nagano's long life expectancy.
Second, because it uses no fertilizer, rain water, or fossil fuels to produce, Sansai is the most environmentally sustainable food in the world. Of course, we cannot eliminate our reliance on imported and cultivated foods. But eating more Sansai contributes a little towards a healthier planet.
Sansai is the term for mountain vegetables in Japan, but there are foraged foods around the world. If everyone ate a few wild things, the world might be better for it.
To join a Sansai tour in Northern Nagano, check out Shinano Discovery and Lamp Guest House. There are also Sansai tours in other mountainous areas around Japan. A great way to learn about foraged foods in Japan is the book, Eating Wild Japan: Tracking the Culture of Foraged Foods, with a Guide to Plants and Recipes, by Winifred Bird.
Sansai is only available in spring, but there are equivalent mushroom tours in autumn.
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Author: Daniel Moore
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