By Alexis Agliano Sanborn
No matter the time or place, market days have always been a way for city-dwellers to connect with the land. The multi-colored stalls offer a tangible vehicle to our agrarian heritage. The fresh baked bread, the luscious heirloom tomatoes, crisp apples, and bright tender greens! They are transportive morsels that in a single bite find us among the fields and orchards of simpler times.
However, growing alongside these State Fair bumper zucchinis and prize-winning rutabagas lie an oft-forgotten heritage that offers seedy and spicy flavors of the meadows and forests. Found in glens and amongst the brambles dwell the wild herbs and edibles that for centuries served as an important source of food and flavor.
Most every country has their prized wild edibles. Although not often on the menus in Asian restaurants in the United States, China, Korea and Japan have a long tradition of including delectable wild delicacies to every season. In the Korean tradition, you often find aster scaber incorporated into savory side dishes. (For more complete reading, here is an interesting academic paper on wild edibles on Jeju Island, Korea.) Japan has its own seasonal traditions including sansai tori, wild greens picking, or takenoko tori, wild bamboo shoots hunting in the springtime. These ingredients are renowned for their flavor and, often, health benefits.
Here in the United States it seemed as though consuming wild edibles has been overlooked for decades – something relegated to an alternative and unplugged aspect of society. Now these tasties are on their way to becoming welcome additions on the plate as we reexamine heritage ingredients and flavors. Restaurants such as Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, are some of the movers and shakers behind this trend.
Yet behind every chef interested in diving into these new/old flavors is the person who sources the ingredients. It is these people who truly lie on the forefront of culinary exploration. Perhaps one of the most famous champions of this cause is Tama Matsuoka Wong, a lawyer turned forager and environmental steward who embraced the wild side!
Raised in New Jersey, Tama admits that she did not have a green thumb. In fact, it was her decided lack of gardening skills that caused her to reexamine those persistent “weeds.” Surely, they couldn’t be so bad… And, as it turns out, they aren’t. Actually, some plants are decidedly edible. Some also taste like cardboard, it’s true. However, there is a small percentage of wild plants that offer vibrant flavors unlike anything found in grocery stores. They are bright and bitter, bold and tangy, mild and meaty, and so on…
Determined to learn more and taste these flavors ourselves, The Gohan Society embarked on its inaugural fieldtrip on a rainy, misty day in early May to New Jersey. Driving through well-maintained farmland and preserved forestland, you can tell there is a deep-seeded pride of home and love of nature all around. A similar spirit is found in Tama’s beautifully restored farmhouse. Yet, it wasn’t the indoors we had come to see – we came to discover the magic that lay just beyond the porch steps.
Not a stone’s throw away from the house our adventure into the world of foraging began – finding chicory and cress, two wild greens excellent in salads or soups, growing in the abandoned vegetable beds. There was also Garlic Pennycress, fanning a pretty array of zesty seeds. With its intense wasabi-garlic flavor, this was a particular favorite the group. Added to wild mustard, they can be whipped up into a tasty pesto or included in an omelet, to name a few. Bitter, fresh, and herbal these flavors complement the vivacity of the season.
Further afield, we gathered artemisia, also known as yomogi in Japan. There, it is used widely as an aromatic addition to sweets or beauty products. However, there’s also a delicious savory element which makes it well suited for tempura or soups. The Gohan explorers used the greens for therapeutic baths, while others attempted a savory mushroom soup.
There were other discoveries for us, such as the bastion of Japanese knotweed – a plant with a similar taste and consistency as rhubarb when picked young enough – or the ripe fruit of the May Apple (also known as the Mandrake), a preferred delicacy for New Jersey turtles – although supposedly quite bland for a human’s tastes. Tama also shared with us information about the wild greens and fruits to appear in the upcoming months, as well as recent plantings. One was the inclusion of black mulberry trees, the most delicious and flavorful variety (unlike the bland white and red ones so commonly found these days). Just planted, these trees will take years to bear fruit – perhaps just in time for the next Gohan Society field trip back to her place.
By the time the day had ended, not only had we come to reexamine what was growing under our feet – but were inspired to explore and experiment with these wild flavors in our cooking. Our time with Tama on her farm in New Jersey was truly a feast for the mind and spirit!
Alexis Agliano Sanborn is one of The Gohan Society’s super volunteers. She has lived in Nagoya, Tokyo, and rural Shimane Prefecture as a student, intern, and working professional. She received her Bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies and Japanese from UC Santa Barbara and her Master’s degree from Harvard University in Regional Studies of East Asia.
She is working on a proposal for a school lunch-themed cookbook, school lunch website (japaneseschoollunch.com), as well as illustration and stationery designs. Find out more at www.alexisaglianosanborn.com.