Again to My Roots: Foraging Wild Meals in Japan’s Mountains

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Sansai holds a particular place within the hearts of many Japanese. A nostalgic phrase that invokes pictures of nation life and dwelling off the land, Sansai has on the similar time change into a culinary delicacy. 

Translated as “mountain vegetable,” the phrase Sansai is tough to outline however usually consists of any edible plant foraged within the mountains. These flowers, leaves, stems, shoots, roots, and bulbs are natural, picked seasonally, nutritious, and, most significantly, scrumptious. 

Though many cultures collect wild meals, Japan – like so many issues – takes this obsession to the following stage.

Sustainable Forests, Scrumptious Yields

Japan has not at all times had such a constructive relationship with foraged meals. Whereas all people used to hunt and collect, foraging remained longer in Japan as a result of the steep mountains weren’t usually well-suited for rice cultivation. Because of this, individuals retained blended emotions about Sansai all through Japanese historical past. 

Sansai stored individuals alive throughout dangerous harvests, famine, and warfare. However individuals additionally wished to neglect these painful reminiscences, transferring on to extra dignified meals comparable to meat, greens, and white rice. Sarcastically, Sansai was each the favourite meals of emperors and a method of survival. 

Immediately, the pendulum has swung far in the wrong way. Individuals recognize Sansai for its culinary delights, with many cooking strategies, fusions, and flavors. 

Japan’s perspective in the direction of sustainability is altering as properly. Japan, seemingly missing pure assets, is overflowing with meals and water, crucial pure assets. The forest advantages from correct human administration, which offers beneficiant harvests for us to take pleasure in.

Selecting Sansai

Assembly Kohei Nishida early within the morning at a comfort retailer, I hop into his 4WD Ok-truck. Kohei is an English-speaking information within the space, taking individuals snowshoeing, mountain climbing on the newly created Amatomi Path, biking, and Sansai choosing. 

Along with the thick rain boots, I discover the fat-tired E-bikes and helmets stacked within the truck and understand I’m in for some tough terrain. However I’m excited to be taught. 

The ever-present white Ok-truck.

Earlier than we depart, I specific my gratitude for Kohei’s willingness to point out me the ropes. Sadly, a number of individuals had refused the request to take me, not prepared to disclose their secret Sansai stashes. 

At first, I assumed this was merely a want to guard their searching grounds. However because the day progresses, I understand how weak Sansai is to overharvest and higher perceive their predicament. 

The truth is, many municipalities have applied licenses and most quantities permitted to guard shares and guarantee an annual harvest.

Kohei in his factor.

Sansai Safari

First up is Kohei’s favourite Udo spot, also referred to as mountain asparagus. Most individuals eat the leaves, however apparently, the basis is scrumptious. 

We scramble up the aspect of a mountain and discover the hidden treasure, cautious to take solely one-third of the crops so the rest can recuperate. 

Descending, we occur upon some Plantain Lily, scrumptious in a salad. Sansai is sort of a field of sweets ー you by no means know what you’re gonna get. 

Dunking the contemporary Udo stems in an ice-cold stream and consuming them proper there, I see the comparability to asparagus and assume, “that is method cooler than chocolate.”

Giving Udo a attempt on the mountain.

We modify places and pull out the E-bikes, ascending the winding forest highway. Like a Sansai safari, we incessantly cease upon sighting one thing attention-grabbing. 

First, it’s Kogomi, or ostrich ferns, elegant when boiled for a few minutes and dipped in sesame miso paste. 

Subsequent, we encounter Taranome, or Japanese Angelica. Scrumptious in tempura, Taranome is known as the king of Sansai, and is particularly weak to overharvesting as a result of every tree solely produces a couple of shoots. Cautious to solely decide the place Kohei approves, I take into consideration dinner, and my abdomen rumbles.

Discovering Taranome.

One Ultimate Catch

Our ultimate catch is a forest of Koshiabura, for which I’m unable to search out an English identify. The Queen of Sansai can be good in tempura or cooked into rice referred to as takikomi gohan. 

Kohei tells me tips on how to distinguish this from the similar-looking however inedible lacquer tree. Lacquer has a coronary heart sample stamped on the bottom of every department. That is the form of native data you may solely attain by going with somebody who is aware of the terrain. 

Lastly, we discover a few uncommon Sansai, together with the shoots of untamed grape leaves and snow camelia, earlier than returning to my automotive.

Koshiabura within the wild.

It’s been an academic morning that makes me keen to go to once more. 

Japan, particularly Nagano, has one of many longest lifespans on this planet. I can’t assist however assume the mix of the train, dietary content material, and pure setting in foraging by some means contributes to this longevity. In fact, it’s additionally loads of enjoyable. 

For one final studying expertise, we go to a neighborhood farmers’ market promoting greens and Sansai. Kohei himself sells right here and tells me it is a helpful aspect hustle for farmers within the spring. I purchase some objects we didn’t discover on the path and head residence. 

I wish to help the native financial system and improve the variety of dishes for tonight’s Sansai celebration.

Sansai on the market.

The Sansai Occasion

I invite a couple of pals over and attempt to put together the Sansai in as many alternative methods as doable. A small plate of Sansai can price as a lot as ¥1,000 JPY (about $8 USD) in Tokyo. We have now an all-you-can-eat Sansai buffet and feast like kings.

Tempura is the preferred method of making ready Sansai and removes a lot of the bitterness. The tempura dishes embrace Taranome, Koshiabura, Udo leaves, Fukinoto (butterbur), grape leaves, and among the Kogomi. 

Including a pinch of salt or dipping the tempura in a light-weight sauce brings out the flavour.


The remaining Kogomi we boil and dip in a miso mayonnaise dressing. Earlier than the dinosaurs, ferns have been thriving on earth, and I really feel like I’m accessing this prehistoric power.

Boiled Kogomi.

Like on the mountain, we peel the Udo stems and dip them in miso. The style and watery crunch remind us of celery sticks.

Udo sticks.

Among the Fukinoto is chopped up and pan-fried with miso to make a dish referred to as fukimiso. Fukimiso is scrumptious on rice accompanied by a chilly beer.

Chopped up Fukinoto.

We pan-fry the Udo leaves with bacon and soy sauce for a Sansai fusion dish. Like different greens, Sansai could be tailored to completely different cuisines and substances to maintain issues attention-grabbing.

Udo-bacon stir-fry.


I’ve loved Sansai on quite a few events, however choosing it heightens my appreciation for these wild greens. 

A few ideas from the day stick out to me. First, Sansai needs to be the world’s healthiest sort of meals. Combining train with consuming numerous pure, natural leafy greens straight from the forest should contribute to Nagano’s lengthy life expectancy. 

Second, as a result of it makes use of no fertilizer, rain water, or fossil fuels to provide, Sansai is essentially the most environmentally sustainable meals on this planet. In fact, we can not remove our reliance on imported and cultivated meals. However consuming extra Sansai contributes slightly in the direction of a more healthy planet. 

Sansai partygoers.

Sansai is the time period for mountain greens in Japan, however there are foraged meals all over the world. If everybody ate a couple of wild issues, the world may be higher for it.

To hitch a Sansai tour in Northern Nagano, take a look at Shinano Discovery and Lamp Visitor Home. There are additionally Sansai excursions in different mountainous areas round Japan. An effective way to study foraged meals in Japan is the e-book, Consuming Wild Japan: Monitoring the Tradition of Foraged Meals, with a Information to Vegetation and Recipes, by Winifred Chook.

Sansai is barely obtainable in spring, however there are equal mushroom excursions in autumn.

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Creator: Daniel Moore

Energetic Journey Japan

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