One of the unique aspects about living in the inaka (rural Japan) is the emphasis on collecting and eating wild edibles, both from the sea and the mountainside. It was explained to me recently that Japan, as a whole, has a culture of sansai, which literally means ‘mountain side dish.’ But while city folk have a harder time accessing these plants and fungi, the practice is still carried on by those in the country. When asked if this is a dying custom, I was told that gathering wild edibles is something that young people generally don’t do, but once they reach a certain age, they start to crave the tastes of their youth and return to the practice. Of course, these days, even urbanites when facing a hankering, can turn to the internet and order all forms of sansai direct to their doorstep.
In northern Japan, where I live, the custom is alive and well. Fuki (“fu” as in “food”) is a plant that grows alongside roads and in the woods. Basically everywhere. It has big broad leaves, but is only collected for its hollow stalk. After first being “prepared” (boiled to reduce bitterness and peeled of its fibrous veins – think the stuff that gets caught in your teeth when you eat celery) it can be pickled, sautéed, or stuffed with any number of seasonings, but usually a combination of soy sauce, rice wine, and rice vinegar. Bamboo shoots and warabi, a large green fern, are two other commonly collected and eaten plants. In fact, on a recent hike, a friend and I tried our hand at gathering the curly-q baby fern shoots, which we battered up, fried, and ate as tempura. Delicious. In the Fall, the Japanese are avid mushroom collectors, cruising the woods with mini, long-handled scythes to pluck unsuspecting fungi from their hiding. But like any serious mushroom hunter, it’s difficult to get someone to share their secret spot.
I’ve really enjoyed getting to experience this aspect of Japanese culture. And while I’m sure there are pockets of people in the US that also collect wild edibles, I am impressed that as a country, Japan seems more connected to its food sources than most of America. Without a doubt, I believe it stems from Japan’s history of being an isolated country. In the centuries before its exposure to the West and the vast amount of foodstuffs and products it now imports, there was great emphasis on being self-sufficient. Seaweed and wild edible collecting evolved out of necessity, and I’m glad to see the custom, vastly more sustainable than the fishing industry, is one that remains a large part of Japan’s rich and complex culture.