Although I’m currently back in New York for a brief visit, I’ve been thinking a lot about spring in Japan, particularly what new foods will be available in the markets once I return in April. Even in February, when it was most definitely still winter, it was clear that people’s minds were already turning toward spring. Stores around Matsumoto began introducing sakura (cherry blossom)-flavored goods: a little street stand that sells taiyaki (fish-shaped pancakes surrounding sweet red bean paste) featured a sakura and mochi-filled version, and the local Starbucks was advertising a sakura frappuccino!
Then, in early March, we had a full week of sunny weather, with temperatures reaching 15°C (~60°F) some days – perfect biking weather. As I pedaled around town, I noticed that the mountains had taken on a reddish tinge, due to the appearance of buds on deciduous trees. Many of the local rice paddies had turned a verdant, brilliant green, and some plum blossoms had even begun to peek out.
Just before I left, Steven picked up some great produce at a highway rest stop (a.k.a. “parking”). In addition to huge bags of enoki mushrooms and taro roots, he also brought back a small package of bright green buds. Each bud was about an inch in diameter and surrounded by a mass of thin leaves. They had clearly been harvested recently, because they still had bits of dirt and moss clinging to them.
As it turned out, these curious things were fukinotō, the sprouts of the butterbur plant. Fukinotō are one of many sansai (mountain vegetables) eaten in Japan, others of which include warabi (fiddlehead ferns), takenoko (bamboo shoots), and mitsuba (now widely cultivated). Their appearance is generally regarded as a harbinger of spring, even when snow remains on the ground. Although they are often prepared as tempura, they can also be simmered in a sweet miso sauce, which makes a lovely accompaniment for freshly cooked rice.
I chose the latter preparation, mainly because I thought it would help lessen some of the plant’s inherent bitterness. Once cooked, the fukinotō were still a bit bitter, but in a way that contrasted nicely with the sweet and pungent sauce. For the miso, I used a coarse, moderately salty red variety, which was well-suited to the dish’s rustic qualities. However, I imagine a smoother, sweeter miso could be substituted, although you might have to reduce the amounts of mirin and sugar.
As for the fukinotō themselves, they are most likely impossible to find in the States (though if you’ve found them somewhere, do let me know). As a replacement, I suspect you could use another foraged edible plant, such as fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles, mustard, or perhaps even wild asparagus. Whatever vegetable you use, it should be firm enough to hold up against the blanching and simmering, but not too coarse or fibrous. Of course, you want to make sure what you’re eating is safe, too, so consult an expert when in doubt. (If you’re going to be foraging yourself, I’d also recommend this book.) Cooking with sansai is healthy, educational, and a great way to celebrate the arrival of warmer weather – so have fun, and happy foraging!
For more on Japanese sansai check out these articles and resources:
- Photo gallery of sansai: http://shizuokagourmet.wordpress.com/sansai/
- Article from Saveur on chef Hisao Nakahigashi: http://www.saveur.com/article/Travels/Native-Soul
- Short article on sansai, with recipes: http://www.piqniq.jp/node/5109
Fukinotō in Miso Sauce
Adapted from Cookpad (recipe in Japanese)
Serves 3-4 as a relish/side dish
12 fukinotō (butterbur sprouts), outer leaves removed and washed well
6 tablespoons miso, preferably a coarse aka miso (red miso)
1/3 cup mirin
4 tablespoons sugar
Blanch fukinotō in boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Squeeze dry, then finely chop.
Combine chopped fukinotō with remaining ingredients in a small saucepan. Simmer over low heat for 3-5 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Adjust seasoning if desired and serve with freshly cooked rice, miso soup, and other accompaniments, such as pickles, tofu, and/or grilled fish.