Back to my roots: Foraging for wild foods in the mountains of Japan
Sansai holds a special place in the hearts of many Japanese people. A nostalgic word that conjures up images of country life and living off the land, Sansai has simultaneously become a culinary delight.
Translated as “mountain vegetable”, the word Sansai is difficult to define but generally includes any edible plant foraged in the mountains. These flowers, leaves, stems, shoots, roots and bulbs are organic, seasonally picked, nutritious and, above all, delicious.
Although many cultures gather wild food, Japan – like so many other things – takes this obsession to the next level.
Sustainable forests, delicious yields
Japan has not always had such a positive relationship with feedstuffs. While all humans used to hunt and gather, the search for food remained longer in Japan because the steep mountains were often not well suited for growing rice. As a result, people have retained mixed feelings about Sansai throughout Japanese history.
Sansai kept people alive through crop failures, famine, and war. But people also wanted to forget those painful memories and switch to more dignified foods like meat, vegetables and white rice. Ironically, Sansai was both the emperors’ favorite food and a means of survival.
Today, the pendulum swung far in the opposite direction. People enjoy Sansai for its culinary delights, with many cooking methods, fusions, and flavors.
Japan’s attitude towards sustainability is also changing. Japan, apparently devoid of natural resources, abounds in food and water, the most important natural resources. The forest benefits from good human management, which offers us generous harvests that we can enjoy.
Meeting Kohei Nishida early in the morning at a convenience store, I hop in his K-truck 4×4. Kohei is an English-speaking guide in the area, taking people on snowshoes, hiking the new Amatomi trail, biking, and picking Sansai.
Along with the thick rain boots, I notice the tired e-bikes and helmets piled up in the truck and realize that I’m in rough terrain. But I’m glad to learn.
Before leaving, I express my gratitude for Kohei’s willingness to show me the ropes. Unfortunately, several people had refused the request to take me, not wanting to reveal their secret Sansai hideouts.
At first I thought it was just a desire to protect their hunting grounds. But as the day progresses, I realize how vulnerable Sansai are to overexploitation and better understand their plight.
In fact, many municipalities have licensing and maximum allowable amounts in place to protect inventory and ensure an annual harvest.
First, Kohei’s favorite Udo spot, also known as mountain asparagus. Most people eat the leaves, but apparently the root is delicious.
We climb up the side of a mountain and find the hidden treasure, taking care to only take a third of the plants so the rest can recover.
Going down, we come across Plantain Lily, delicious in salads. Sansai is like a box of chocolates ー you never know what you’re going to get.
Dipping Udo’s fresh stalks into an icy stream and eating them right there, I see the comparison to asparagus and think, “that’s way cooler than chocolate.”
We change location and take out the e-bikes up the winding forest road. Like a Sansai safari, we stop frequently upon spotting something interesting.
First of all, these are Kogomi, or ostrich ferns, sublime when boiled for a few minutes and dipped in sesame miso paste.
Then we meet Taranome, or Japanese Angelica. Delicious in tempura, Taranome is called the king of Sansai, and is particularly vulnerable to overexploitation because each tree only produces a few shoots. Careful to only choose where Kohei approves, I think about dinner and my stomach growls.
One last take
Our last catch is a forest in Koshiabura, for which I am unable to find an English name. The Queen of Sansai is also good in tempura or cooked in rice called takikomi gohan.
Kohei tells me how to tell it apart from the similar looking but inedible lacquer tree. The lacquerware has a heart design stamped on the base of each branch. It’s the kind of local knowledge you can only gain by going with someone who knows the terrain.
Finally, we find a couple of rare Sansai, including wild vine and snow camellia leaf shoots, before heading back to my car.
It was an educational morning that makes me want to come back.
Japan, especially Nagano, has one of the longest lifespans in the world. I can’t help but think that the combination of exercise, nutritional content, and the natural foraging framework somehow contributes to this longevity. Of course, it’s also a lot of fun.
For a final learning experience, we visit a local farmers market selling vegetables and Sansai. Kohei himself sells here and tells me it’s a valuable side business 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 some friends and try to prepare Sansai in as many different ways as possible. A small plate of Sansai can cost up to ¥1,000 (about US$8) in Tokyo. We have an all-you-can-eat Sansai buffet and we feast like kings.
Tempura is the most popular way to prepare Sansai and takes away a lot of the bitterness. Tempura dishes include Taranome, Koshiabura, Udo leaves, Fukinoto (butterbur), vine leaves, and some of Kogomi.
Adding a pinch of salt or dipping the tempura in a light sauce brings out the flavor.
We boil the remaining Kogomi and dip it in a miso mayonnaise sauce. Before the dinosaurs, ferns thrived on earth, and I feel like I’m tapping into that prehistoric energy.
As in the mountains, we peel the stems of Udo and soak them in miso. The watery taste and crunch are reminiscent of celery sticks.
Part of the Fukinoto is chopped and pan-fried with miso to make a dish called fukimiso. Fukimiso is delicious over rice accompanied by a cold beer.
We pan-sear Udo’s 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’ve enjoyed Sansai many times, but picking it increases my appreciation for these wild vegetables.
A few thoughts from the day come to mind. First of all, Sansai has to be the healthiest type of food in the world. Combining exercise with eating various natural and organic leafy greens straight from the forest must contribute to Nagano’s long lifespan.
Second, because it uses no fertilizers, rainwater, or fossil fuels to produce, Sansai is the most environmentally sustainable food in the world. Of course, we cannot eliminate our dependence on imported and grown foods. But eating more Sansai contributes a bit to a healthier planet.
Sansai is the term for mountain vegetables in Japan, but foraged foods exist all over the world. If everyone ate a few wild foods, maybe the world would be better off.
To join a Sansai tour in northern Nagano, head to Shinano Discovery and Lamp Guest House. There are also Sansai tours in other mountainous regions of Japan. A great way to learn more about foraged foods in Japan is the book, Eating Wild in Japan: Tracking Forage Food Culture, with a Guide to Plants and Recipesby Winifred Bird.
Sansai is only available in the spring, but there are equivalent mushroom tours in the fall.
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Author: Daniel Moore
Active travel in Japan