Updated: Apr 26, 2022
↑ Japanese people enjoy “Sansai picking" in the mountains in spring! Blessings of the mountains with limited time! Hello from Japan Culinary Institute, and welcome to JCI's blog for those looking for an opportunity to learn about Japanese cuisine and culture in Japan! Japan is a country of four distinct seasons, and each season brings a variety of seasonal vegetables, fruits, and seafood to enjoy. When learning about Japanese cuisine, it is essential to understand the most delicious ingredients during the season, and JCI strives to teach this knowledge in great detail. In particular, Japanese people have long looked forward to the blessings of the mountains, "Sansai," or mountain greens, with the arrival of spring. Unlike vegetables grown in the fields, they are unique in rustic nature and have a distinctive aroma, texture, and bitterness. Here we introduce some of the spring wild vegetables and how Japanese people prepare and enjoy them, including the local cuisine of each region! Let's learn about spring mountain delicacies together! Table of Contents 1. About "Spring Sansai" Names and variations
2.Local dishes to Enjoy Spring Wild Greens
1. About "Spring Sansai" Names and variations
↑ Fukinoto(Butterbur buds) In Japan, Spring weather brings delicately flavored wild mountain greens and edible buds and shoots. Japanese people call them “the taste of spring.” If you happen to travel in Japan during spring’s annual rebirth, we hope you will explore just sakura blossoms, but the variety of ever-changing regional cuisine featuring these spring mountain greens. There is truly no better way to explore Japanese spring cuisine than with Sansai. Here are a few names of those springtime Sansai we would love you to try cooking with us! Fukinoto(Butterbur sprouts, photo above) Butterbur sprouts peek out in the mountains in early spring when the weather is still freezing. The pale green shoots surrounding the flower buds of the butterbur (described below) are picked and eaten. The Japanese enjoy its unique bitterness as a savory delicacy. It is chopped and stewed with miso to make a bitter miso relish, which is then served with rice or as an accompaniment to sake. Tempura is another popular way to eat them.
The long stalks of Japanese butterbur have a juicy texture similar to celery or rhubarb. The long stalks have hard streaks, which should be carefully removed. Butterbur has an inherently bitter taste, pre-treated by rubbing with salt and then boiled to reduce the sharp taste. Fresh butterbur is delicious as tempura, but it is also good to eat the stems cut into bite-size pieces and simmered in dashi and mirin (Japanese soup stock and sweet cooking sake) or soy sauce, sake, and sugar. Takenoko (Bamboo Shoots)
↑ Takenoko (Bamboo Shoots) head out of the soil! Takenoko(Baby of Bamboo in Japanese) are bamboo shoots that have just emerged from the ground. It is a wild vegetable characterized by its crunchy texture and freshness. It is considered a delicacy, especially in spring, because the time to eat freshly dug bamboo shoots is short. The rest of the year, you can only find takenoko pre-cooked or canned. Fresh takenoko can be simmered with water with a bit of nuka(rice bran), then sliced up to eat on salads, batter and fry them for tempura, or cooked with soy sauce, sake, and sugar for a nimono(simmered) dish. Bamboo shoots are used in various vegetable dishes, but flavored takenoko rice is a quintessentially spring dish. Zenmai (Royal Fern or Flowering Fern)
"Zenmai" grows in moist, shady forests. Zenmai means coil in Japanese. The name is derived from the shape of the spiral leaves. The young leaves, still tender, are harvested in early spring and boiled in water before use in cooking. The tender stems are boiled quickly in salted water and served with a simple seasoning such as soy sauce. They can be stir-fried with soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil, cooked with takenoko and other vegetables, or mixed with rice. Easily gathered in the mountains of many regions of Japan, zenmai are an essential part of the Japanese spring table. Yama Udo (Mountain Asparagus)
"Udo" (the long stalks in the top photo) is mountain asparagus with edible shoots and leaves. Peel away the tough green outer layer to reveal a tender, crisp white flesh reminiscent of celery, even fennel. It's best to soak fresh udo with a splash of vinegar for about 30 minutes before cooking to remove any bitterness and keep the clear white. The shoots can be grilled, sautéed, or pickled, while the leaves can be added to soups and salads or battered and fried for tempura. Kogomi (Ostrich Fern)
Kogomi is a wild plant native to Japan and is easily recognizable by the spiral of the curled fern tips. This spring vegetable must be boiled and before eating to remove bitterness. Try kogomi simmered in soy sauce and dashi as a mild-flavored side dish, or even sautéed it in olive oil and topped with pasta! Taranome(the Aralia Sprout)
Vegetables and edible wild greens are often a large part of the Japanese diet. Taranome is one of those wild sprouts of Aralia plants that grow in spring. It is usually eaten as tempura, or you can blanche and toss it with sesame or miso dressing or mayonnaise, which acts as a counter for the bitterness.
2. Local dishes to Enjoy Spring Wild Greens
↑"Sansai Soba" is a staple menu that Japanese love in spring! Now that I have introduced you to the different types of wild plants, I would like to introduce you to some dishes using them. Unlike vegetables grown in the field, wild vegetables have a wild flavor, with a unique aroma, texture, and bitterness. Tempura is a particularly popular way to cook wild vegetables. Stir-fried and simmered dishes are also popular. In addition, here are some other local dishes from around the country as well! While the taste of freshly picked wild greens is wonderful, the uneaten portion is preserved for a long time by pickling in salt or drying in the sun to enjoy the "taste of spring."
↑ Crispy Sansai(fresh Taranome) Tempura is our favorite, too! Enjoy it with a sprinkle of salt.
↑Takenoko and chicken rice lightly flavored with sake and soy sauce with dashi stock, topped with a leaf of Japanese pepper “sansho”
↑Chishima-zasa bamboo shoots, also known as "Hime-take, princess bamboo shoots," are used in Niigata Prefecture's local dish, "bamboo shoot soup. The inclusion of canned mackerel characterizes it. (Image courtesy of Joetsu City, Niigata Prefecture and www.maff.go.jp)
↑ Quickly blanched butterbur stem and deep-fried tofu with dressing(Image courtesy of www.maff.go.jp)
↑"Sasa(Bamboo)-zushi" is traditional sushi found in Niigata and Ishikawa prefectures. Sasa-zushi is made by placing vinegared rice on a bed of kumazasa bamboo and arranging ingredients and condiments such as dried royal fern, hime-take mushroom sprouts, salmon, and nozawana (a leafy green) on top.(Image courtesy of www.maff.go.jp)
↑Sauteed dried zenmai, sprouts of "Hime-take, princess bamboo shoots," and fuki(Image courtesy of www.maff.go.jp)
↑ The oil-based Pasta with taranome and salted pork slices is a Japanese-Italian fusion dish in spring!
↑The Kaiseki course featuring Spring ingredients is so delightful!
↑ Tempura traps the flavor of the wild vegetables. It is the ultimate spring bounty! Japanese people love to eat with the season and use seasonal vegetables in their meals at home. We enjoy going into mountains to pick them, too! Cooking this way is fresher, cheaper, and more sustainable, don’t you agree? Do you eat mountain greens or herbs in your country? Do you use them in your dishes at home? If so, we would love to share! What Seasonal Japanese Spring wild greens do you like to eat? How would you like to have it, tempura or with soba? Learning about Washoku is also learning about Japanese culture and lifestyle. The greatest pleasure of Japanese cuisine is using seasonal ingredients and creating dishes that incorporate the most delicious essence of the season. JCI also teaches you how to cook tempura and other dishes using the wild vegetables featured in this issue, depending on the season! Why don't you join us to master Washoku together at JCI?