Spring vegetables article in the Japan Times
I seem to have vegetables on my mind a lot these days - it is springtime after all. This month's article for the Japan Times is all about spring vegetables that are more or less unique to Japan. You may know about takenoko or bamboo shoots, but do you know fuki, and warabi, and udo? And did you know that the young leaves of the wasabi plant are a great delicacy, only available in the spring? Well...read and find out!
If you are in Japan, you can get these vegetables is to just go to your local well-stocked supermarket or department stall food hall. Unfortunately, as far as I know most of these vegetables are not available outside of Japan, unless you grow them yourself or are very lucky and find them at a Japanese grocery store or something like that. (But most readers of the Japan Times live in Japan so I can get away with writing about only-in-Japan things a bit more there ^_^;.) I don't even know if you can get the seeds for them. You can get the roots of some things, such as fuki (butterbur) or wasabi and try your luck. My mother used to grow a ton of fuki in her garden on Long Island, NY. It even became a bit invasive. So if you can get some roots, give it a go!
I have to admit that as a kid, I used to hate all of these wild vegetables, especially fuki and fuki no tou, because of their bitterness. Now I crave them. Modern hybridized vegetables seem so uniformly bland, that it's rather nice to have a zing of extra sharpness or bitterness from varieties that have not had all the bite bred out of them.
Here are some more spring vegetables sold at the Nishiki market in Kyoto and Tsukiji Jougai (outdoors) market in Tokyo these past couple of weeks. (I've written about the Nishiki Market here, but not about the Tsukiji Market. And I should, because all in all I prefer the more raucous Tokyo market. I'll get to it soon.)
So, this is from Nishiki Market. If you can read hiragana, see how many unfamiliar vegetable labels you can make out. ^_^ For instance, I have no idea how "aloe shoots" (aroe no me) are supposed to be eaten, or that they were eaten at all.
Another from the Nishiki Market. On the right are some gorgeous looking mitsuba - you should be able to get mitsuba at least at well stocked Japanese grocery stores. On the left are bunches of flowering wasabi. I've never had these but I imagine you prepare them the same way as wasabi leaves (called wasabi-na in the eastern part of Japan, ha-wasabi in the west).
This display is from the Tsukiji outdoors market. (Outdoors or jougai means it's outside of the wholesale area, where the famous fish auctions take place. Tons of little shops line the streets and are worth a trip even if you can't get into the wholesale area.) The main thing on show here is kogomi, a mountain vegetable similar to warabi. You can also see gyouja ninniku in the back right - these are sort of like bärlauch or wild garlic.
And finally, some pretty nice looking wasabi roots for sale at Tsukiji, in case you've never seen the real thing.
The Japan Time article has a recipe for tempura using some of these spring vegetables. Another way to enjoy them is to simply blanch them (some vegetables need special de-bittering treatment, which is described in the article) and serve with a dressing. Here's a little dish of blanched nanohana with the thinly sliced raw mountain udo core. Udo is a bit like parsnip; the outer part is a bit tough, and the core is tender and nice eaten raw in a salad. The sauce here is sumiso, a mixture of white miso, vinegar and a little sugar.
As I say in the Japan Times article you don't want to eat a big amount of these vegetables, but in small quantities they are really wonderful, a sure sign of spring.
The very fact that these vegetables are even eaten at all (tree shoots? Fern sprouts?) shows how resourceful people used to be - or maybe how desperate they were for food. Kind of puts those people panic-buying cup noodles from convenience stores to shame. Anyway...eating these bitter vegetables is a reminder of our past, not only in terms of our food culture, but showing us what we are capable of.