Several years ago, I spent a summer working at a small garden in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The work was sweaty and strenuous but also remarkably satisfying. My days were mostly occupied with transporting and turning compost, starting seedlings, mixing soil, watering, harvesting and drying herbs, and tending to vermicompost bins. One task that didn’t figure prominently into my daily routine, however, was weeding. Rather than spending hours uprooting every last foreign shoot from the beds and mulched paths, I took some advice from my supervisor, Martha, and let them take root. She taught me which varieties were edible and suggested ways to cook them. Lambs quarters, she warned, should be blanched first to remove any traces of toxic oxalic acid; amaranth leaves were better when young and tender. Armed with this knowledge, I returned home every week with armfuls of greens: peppery wild arugula and delicate lamb’s quarters were sautéed with garlic and plenty of olive oil before being incorporated into frittatas, blanched amaranths got tossed with spaghetti and salty cheese, and juicy purslane found its way into countless tomato and herb salads.
That summer, I learned to love weeds, despite (or perhaps because of) their tenacity, their scruffiness, and their sharp, biting pungency. I also learned that eating weeds grounds you in a place like few other acts can. At every turn, I found edible plants lurking in the interstices of Chicago’s fractured landscape: sprouting from broken sidewalks, pushing through parking lot pavement, colonizing empty lots, and battling the fierce lakeside winds. While most of these specimens were clearly not candidates for culinary use, their presence alerted me to the city’s untapped productive potential. Viewed through its patchwork of weeds, Chicago came to seem increasingly like the “garden city” imagined by 20th century urban theorists, albeit one fed by neglect and postindustrial decline.
A year and a half later, I moved to a small city in the mountains of central Japan. The damp, cold winter tested my limits almost as much as the culture shock and loneliness, but spring’s arrival brought an unexpected form of salvation: sansai, or mountain vegetables. With names like warabi, koshiabura, taranome, and yama-udo, these wild plants were beautiful and intriguing. Better yet, a steady supply was available at the local supermarket for only a slightly higher price than conventional vegetables.
As Azby Brown notes in his book Just Enough, much of the Japanese diet owes its roots to foraging; mushrooms, chestnuts, burdock root, and bamboo shoots are just a few examples of originally foraged foods that figure prominently in contemporary Japanese cuisine. Foraging, of course, grew out of necessity. In pre-modern Japan, food gathered from nearby hillsides provided a means to ride out a poor harvest as well as a valuable source of dietary variety. Unlike domesticated crops, which required laborious and resource-intensive cultivation, wild plants also offered a relatively efficient means of obtaining nutrients. Today, foraging culture remains strong in some regions of Japan. In Nagano prefecture, traditional foraging areas known as satoyama (里山) – the border between mountainous and settled areas – are still in active use. However, the stores of inherited wisdom surrounding wild edible plants is increasingly at risk as Japan’s rural population dwindles.
Here in Brooklyn, foraged vegetables inspire feeding frenzies and fetch astoundingly high prices at farmers’ markets, while overzealous harvesters rampage local forests. Elsewhere, restaurants like Copenhagen’s Noma receive effusive (and no doubt worthy) praise. These developments suggest foraging’s growing acceptance, yet they also seem to miss the point entirely: to forage is to recognize and take responsibility for one’s impact on a place. It is also a free activity, accessible to anyone able to properly identify a plant. Although foraging as a form of subsistence may no longer be practical, its true value lies in its ability remind us where – and how – we live. Perhaps what we need, then, is a better understanding of how foraged foods fit into the broader trajectory of our culinary and cultural history. Maybe then we will know a little more about these places that have sustained us, and about how we have sustained ourselves.
These photos were taken in Prospect Park during a tour led by Leda Meredith, forager extraordinaire.
Sansai Tempura – 山菜天ぷら
(Foraged Vegetable Tempura)
After sampling some remarkable fukinotō tempura at a friend’s house, I am convinced that frying produces the platonic ideal of foraged vegetables. With tempura, the vegetables are barely cooked, while the batter highlights their unique textures and shapes. Some sansai, such as kogomi (fiddleheads), gyoujaninniku (“hermit’s garlic,”or ramps), and kanzou (daylily) can be found here in the Northeastern U.S. However, other wild edible plants such as wild garlic, stinging nettles, dandelion, wild asparagus, garlic mustard, and elm samaras would also work beautifully here.
1 cup ice-cold water
1 egg yolk
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour, plus more for dipping
Assorted foraged vegetables and/or mushrooms, cut into bite-sized pieces if necessary
Canola or vegetable oil, for frying
Fine sea salt, for serving (or use flavored salts such as matcha and yuzu)
Pour the oil in a heavy-bottomed, tall-sided saucepan to a depth of at least 3 inches and place over high heat.
Lightly dredge the vegetables with flour.
While the oil is heating, mix together the water and egg yolk in a small bowl. Gently stir in the flour with chopsticks until just barely moistened – the batter should be very lumpy. It’s best not to let the batter sit too much before cooking, so try to do the mixing right before frying.
To test the oil’s temperature, drop a small piece of batter into the oil: if it sinks and then bobs up to the surface, the oil is ready.
Working with a few pieces at a time, dip the vegetables in batter, letting the excess drip off. Drop into the hot oil, being sure not to crowd the pan, and fry until lightly golden. Remove with tongs or cooking chopsticks and let the excess oil drip off; drain on tempura paper or paper towels. Repeat with the remaining vegetables. The vegetables are best eaten as soon as they have finished cooking, but they can also be kept warm in a toaster oven.