Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Love the Wild Thing! -2- Japanese Knotweed

Young Shoots of Japanese Knotweed

As I wrote in my previous post, in Japan edible wild plants are nature's blessing, especially in a region where flat land is scarce like my hometown. So I grew up seeing young shoots of Itadori (Japanese Knotweed) as tasty food ingredient, but never an invasive plant. I was really surprised to know that Japanese Knotweed is found outside of Japan, too. And I was nearly shocked to find out that it is spreading all over the world as the most hated invader. 

It seems that we are not the only people who eat its young shoots. Let me show you our traditional way of turning them into tasty dishes. Unlike bracken fern shoots, wood ash is not necessary. We put them briefly in boiling water first to make it easier to peel. After peeling them, we blanch them and immediately soak them in (running) water for hours or overnight. That is the preparation procedure.

Here's two typical side dishes made with the knotweed shoots.
1. Simmered Itadori (Japanese Knotweed)
To make this dish, we chop the prepared knotweed shoots in a proper length, stir-fry them in a little vegetable oil, then add a little water with seasonings like soy sauce, sugar, mirin (rice wine) and simmer. It is common to add some instant fish stock powder or dried bonito flakes to give it more flavor.

2. Itadori Gohan (Chopped Knotweed Shoots Mixed with Cooked Rice)
Each family makes this dish in a slightly different way. I use pre-treated shoots. I chop them in small pieces, stir-fry them with dried baby fish, season them with soy sauce, sake and rice wine, then mix them into cooked rice with sesame seeds.
But for the dish in this photo above, raw shoots are used. Many people like this version because this way you can taste the fresh sourness of the raw shoots. But the sourness comes from oxalic acid so you are not supposed to eat too much of it at one time. I guess they do remove some of this unwanted acid beforehand by salting the shoots and leaving them for a while or soaking them in water for a while -- but not for too long.

And here's another way to use this edible wild plant that I learned this year, which is...
... making jam with them!!
Looks like this is nothing new in some European countries, right? ;)
Japanese Knotweed Jam

The jam reminded me of rhubarb jam, which is no surprise because they both belong to the same Polygonaceae family

Knotweed Jam Pound Cake

I also learned that the slices of the shoots can make good pizza topping.

See? Consuming the young shoots this way results in preventing this invasive plant from spreading too much, doesn't it? Our food culture is actually a unique, fun and tasty way to fight against the invasive plant and have a symbiotic relationship with nature, I guess. :D
That was a nice thing to find out.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Love the Wild Thing! -1- Bracken Fern Shoots

Bracken Fern Shoots

If you come to my hometown, Muroto, you'll instantly notice that there is almost no flat plain here. The land has been rising -- literally getting higher -- because of the movement of tectonic plates. In most places, there are just mountains and the ocean.

Our ancestors could not develop large-scale agriculture here. Instead, they have learned to make the best use of the resources available, which includes edible wild plants.

Now, think about it. You have absolutely no scientific knowledge of plants. And you are starving. You see many young shoots of wild plants around you. They look soft, but you have no idea what they would taste like or if they are poisonous. Would you dare to eat them?

It must have taken some courage for our ancestors to eat shoots of some wild plants, because they often taste bitter and/or contained unhealthy substance. I wonder how they found ways to remove such unwanted substance. They must have gone through a series of trials and errors... especially before they found out that wood ash can be effective in removing unwanted harshness.

In case of these bracken fern shoots, the unwanted substance even includes a carcinogen, ptaquiloside. OMG, but don't panic. That is why a thorough preparation is necessary, and we know that... even though not everyone knows exactly how to do it.

Let me show you a traditional way of preparing bracken fern shoots using wood ash. 

You prepare boiling water and add wood ash to it.  My mom actually cooks the shoots in it for quite a while, but those who like the crispiness turn off the heat before throwing the shoots in, and just let them soak in the hot ash-mixed water overnight.

After that, the shoots are washed and soaked in fresh water for hours. I always soak them for two solid days and keep a little water running to let it overflow all the time.  In my childhood, grandma would soak them in a nearby stream.
Now, it is widely said in Japan that this pre-treatment of heating and soaking in water make the young shoots safe, and unless you keep eating a huge amount of them, you don't need to worry about ptaquiloside. (More scientific explanation says that the treatment changes ptaquiloside into pterosin B which is not carcinogenic. Details are here if you really want to go deep into the scientific stuff. Choose "bracken" on that website.)
Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino with Bracken Fern and Rapeseed Flower Buds

To enjoy bracken shoots as a side dish, we usually simmer them with soy sauce and sugar.
Let me show you the photos of bracken shoots dishes (mostly traditional ones) here.
But many young moms these days creatively use them for Western dishes as well. This photo above is one of my inventions from April, 2013.
I liked the idea a lot.


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