Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Wild Vegetables: Foods of the Season Continued!

As you might have noticed, I spend a lot of time thinking and photographing what I eat in Japan. This is because food is very good in Japan; Japan is truly one of the great food cultures of the world. Even a Japanese person who has been in the US for twenty years and can't imagine going back to the homeland for fear of engaging in unwelcome social norms and pressures will wax nostalgically about the food. The only other thing such a person will might as much are onsen (hot spring baths). But that's another subject.

One of the first things I spotted in Japan was this poster of a "Gourmet Fest(ival)" for wild vegetables. See? The seasonality of food is so important there is a fest(ival)! I wrote last year of the experience of picking fuki no to and later tsukushi. If you find yourself lucky enough to be in the mountains during the spring, then you don't need a fest(ival), but can pick your own vegetables.

In Himeji, I spotted this farmer's cart laden with sansai. I immediately ran over to take a photo and wanted very much to buy everything she had for sale. I assume that she was a she. I never saw her. And I doubt that the enthusiastic gaijin taking photos was going to prompt her to come out to see me. Or perhaps everything was for sale on an honor system. This is still done in Japan.

I was initially most excited by the bamboo shoots for sale. Look at them! How big and fresh and appetizing! You may remember that I have something of a passion for fresh bamboo shoots. Characters in my novel eat said shoots early on in the book; seeing the shoots for sale here made me think about Rumi and Satomi.

She was also selling tsukushi. If you don't remember why this "wild weed" is so important to me, here's a refresher.

If I'd been staying a ryokan that night, I might have picked up a few things and handed them to the cook. But instead, we had to let all those nice, appetizing vegetables go. Isao, however, had arranged for us to visit a supermarket. And as you can see, there were plenty of seasonal foods for sale there too--all nicely wrapped in plastic, as food is in Japan.

If those ferns look familiar, it's because Isao included them in his Himeji hanami bento.

At some point, I mean to write a longer article on the subject of wild vegetables. I'll just conclude by saying that my mother heads out to the hills of California every spring to search for these vegetables, many of which are available but not appreciated in the States. Now, to give you a sense of our values and how much my mother loves me, she actually Fed Exed me a package of her harvest so I could enjoy the flavors. So it was that I made my first batch of tempura with wild ferns. I seem to have misplaced my photos; here then are some from California when my mother made her tempura with wild vegetables.

Lest you think my mother loves me more than I love her, know that I have been known to Fed-ex a package of ramps and fiddle-heads from New York to California (she promptly went on to try to plant the ramps in her garden). The ramps have started showing up in our local farmer's market in New York, and I tried out our favorite (and easy) miso recipe on them. I'll post the information for preparing ramps a-la-Japonaise another time.

Fiddleheads are due out next month. I'll be back from Japan by then and imagine that another Fed-Ex package will soon be hurtling its way across the US to a kitchen in California.

And that is how much we love to eat.

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