Report by Ben Rosenberg
Disclaimer: Picking and eating wild plants can be fun but also incredibly dangerous. Many plants have poisonous look-alikes, and the utmost caution must be exercised before consuming them. Make sure to not only study target plants extensively before hunting but also any toxic species that may look similar or share the same habitat. Things to keep in mind as well are to avoid places that might have been treated with pesticides and to be mindful of wild animals as many of these plants share spaces with snakes and wild boars. Japan’s three common dangerous plants are Doku Zeri (ドクゼリ Cowbane), Torikabuto (トリカブト Aconitum), and Doku Utsugi (毒空木 Coriaria Japonica).
Psst, hey, kid. Are you looking for some good old fashioned anti-social fun? Besides being a great way to break off social engagements, sansai picking also provides a fun scavenger hunt right in our backyards. Not much in the way of equipment is needed, but for posterity’s sake I’ll give a short list of essentials:
1. Backpack/Fanny pack – Style and utility. Always a good idea, who knows when you’ll need to stash away a found trinket.
2. Multi-tool/Knife – The humble knife helped catapult early man from simple flee picker to cosmos explorer. Don’t even get me started on the indispensability of a multi-tool.
3. Bag – Put the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag to good use collecting plants rather than choking turtles.
4. Water and Hat – You’ll be out in the sun for hours, stay hydrated.
5. Field guide – It goes without saying, know what you’re picking. If you’re unsure, leave it alone.
6. Notebook – Not necessary, but I like to make sketches and take notes. It helps for future hunts.
7. Nitrile coated work gloves – Essential for picking the prickly pears of the world. Plus, anyone wearing gloves looks like they know what they are doing.
Great, now that you’ve assembled your gear and notified your next of kin, it’s time to get into the field. Let’s take a look at some common wild plants that you can easily find in and around the city.
Dandelion / Tanpopo タンポポ
No list of wild edibles would be complete without the regal Dandelion. Extremely easy to identify; this is the first plant you should experiment with. The best time to find these are from early spring to late summer. Found in sunny meadows, lawns and street cracks, you are sure to see plenty of these throughout the city and on the fringes. Every part of the plant is edible, and they contain an excellent source of vitamins A, B, C, E, K, folate, iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. The flower tops make a great tea or wine while the leaves can be added to salads. The roots can be dried, roasted, and ground to make an excellent tasting coffee substitute. Hats off to dandelions!
Mugwort / Yomogi ヨモギ
Once you become familiar with Yomogi, you will begin to see it everywhere. You can find it in the city, by rivers, and in the hills. Japanese people like to add it to soups, mochi, and also tempura fry young leaves. I love making tea from the dried leaves with a bit of ginger. You can also roll fat doobies from the dried leaves to induce vivid dreams. Far out, man. This plant has been used medically for centuries and has even been shown to stop some forms of cancer. Not bad for a backyard plant.
Chameleon plant / Dokudami ドクダミ
This is another easily found city sansai that can be eaten or used for tea. Several older women, aka sansai experts I’ve bumped into while picking have told me that summertime is the peak time to pick this plant when it starts to flower. Dry the leaves and flowers to make a delicious and nutritious tea or use the roots for stir fry. It has a very unique flavor that can be described as fishy and peppery. Don’t let those two adjectives scare you off; this plant is a winner. This fella likes wet soil and partial to full sun so look for areas that stay moist yet get a blast of sun.
Sorrel / Suiba スイバ
This plant is easily identified by it’s spear-point like leaves and can be found in fields, meadows, and grasslands. The young leaves have an intense yet tasty lemony/fruity flavor and make an excellent addition to salads, soups, curries or just fried. Medicinally, it helps with inflammation and acts as a diuretic. So get two birds stoned at once and treat your sore shoulders and your kidney stones with one simple plant. Voilà!
Fiddlehead Fern / Warabi ワラビ
Young bracken fiddleheads have been a source of nutrition around the world since time immemorial. You can find these in early spring in cooler shaded areas such as forested valleys as they emerge from the ground. They are a bit bitter and need to be blanched before consumption, I made the rookie mistake of skipping this step and they ended up being inedibly bitter. These are great pickled, sautéed or tempura fried.
Young Horsetail Shoots / Tsukushi ツクシ（土筆）
If you ever see a chain gang of obachans working their way up and down a riverbank methodically, there is a good chance they are getting their daily quota of Tsukushi. These grow like weeds and can be found in rambling patches around rice fields and rivers. In early spring, the fertile shoots begin to pop out. These are a veritable little plant and can be tossed in many different dishes, just make sure you clean them first and remove the collars. A little later in the plant’s life, they enter the vegetative phase. During this phase, Tsukushi lends itself better to being used as a tea. Take some stalks and dry them out in the sun to make an easy and delicious tea. It also has a long and well documented history of a variety of medical uses. It does, however, contain an enzyme that destroys thiamine and Vitamin B1, so if you are a party animal, this is a plant you’d want to avoid.
Onion Grass / Nobiru ノビル
Found in clumps in grasslands, this pungent grass bears a resemblance to a small chive. It has an unmistakably distinctive onion-garlicky smell, which should be a dead giveaway for identification. The entire plant can be consumed and adds great flavor to salads or seasoning for red meats. Chopped finely and dried, this plant can be a great wild herb for experimenting with.
Milk Thistle / Ooazami オオアザミ
Eeyore, the donkey who joylessly taught us about chronic depression, loved to snack on this thorny weed. I thought I’d end the list with a plant you probably are relatively familiar with yet wildly uneducated about. This plant has a deep history of use as a medicine spanning back thousands of years including treatment for snakebites, improving liver function and depression! Wow that sad donkey was onto something. Believe it or not, the entire plant is edible, cooked or… raw. That’s right, any intrepid bushwacker with a passing familiarity with this plant might scratch their head at the mere suggestion that anyone would consider eating this plant raw, but alas, there are the rare few among us who delight in a little pain with our pleasure. If you feel like turning some of your more sensitive areas into a pincushion ala Albert Fish, go ahead and whet your whistle with a handful of raw thistle. For the rest of us, preparing this plant for consumption is quite simple. Boiling before eating will wilt the needles well enough that they won’t cause any discomfort. This plant is great for salads, pesto, tinctures, and teas.
By no means is this an exhaustive list of sansai you can encounter in Japan, rather it is a very brief list of plants you probably walk by every day. Sansai hunting can be a very rewarding hobby and an excellent way to meet people and bridge the connection between food and nature. Happy hunting!
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