The Japanese Table Back Issues
Traditions of Edible Wild Herbs in Japanby Koji Tanaka
Rich in nutrients, readily available, and often with medicinal properties, wild plants and vegetables have been a source of health and sustenance for numerous culture around the world since ancient times. The tradition abounds in Japan, with its abundant supply and variety of yaso.
In Japan wild plants are called yaso, and those gathered for eating are called sansai (wild greens/vegetables)--once important foods that supplemented the staple of the diet. Reference is made to eating nobiru and hiru, the ancient names for garlic or chives, in a poem from around the time of Emperor Ojin (270-310), which was recorded in the Kojiki, Japan's oldest extant chronicle believed to have been compiled in 712.
A perennial that flourishes in clumps in grasslands and along pathways, nobiru grows in May and June, sending up 50-centimeter tall flower stalks with pale pink and violet blossoms. The plant contains sulfur-compound nutrients similar to that in garlic and are believed beneficial for health. The bulbs may be eaten raw, dipped in miso or mayonnaise, or used with the stems in soups. Wild garlic is also good as a cooked green vegetable doused with soy sauce (o-hitashi) or flavored with vinegared miso sauce. The taste is oniony and a bit sharp, similar to charlottes.
It is recorded that "seven wild herb gruel" (nanakusa-gayu) was served first in 890 by the Mondo-no-tsukasa, officials in charge of the supply of drinking water to the ancient imperial court, during the reign of Emperor Uda. Later records say that "young shoots" of the nanakusa were offered from the retired emperor's palace on the seventh day of the first month of 911, during the reign of Emperor Daigo (r. 897-930). One theory goes that wild herbs were offered to the court from each of the wild field lands surrounding the capital (now Kyoto): seri (dropwort) from Yoshino in the south; nazuna (shephred's purse) from Kitano in the north; hahakogusa (cottonweed) from Murasakino in the northwest; hakobe (chickweed or stitchwort) from Yakeno in the east; kooni tabirako (common sow thistle) from Sagano in the west; kabu (turnip) from Katano in the west; and asa-tsuki (chives) from Hirano in the north. This court custom was transmitted to ordinary households during the mid-Edo period and is preserved today in the custom of eating nanakusa on January 7. Packets containing a set of the seven "wild" herbs are sold in supermarkets, and planters containing sets of seedlings are offered by department stores. The origin of this custom can be found in the ancient traditions related to the numerous divisions of the calendar year. Each division was marked by a sechi-bi (ritual day) on which it was customary to perform rites of thanksgiving to the deities and ancestors, such as presenting offerings of the wild vegetables and fruit, fish and other goods that were freshest and newest at that particular season. The most important of these offerings is made on New Year's, when specially prepared foods, honored with the term "o-sechi," are offered to the household gods and ancestors before being consumed by the families, friends and guests who customarily gather to celebrate.
O-sechi foods are prepared two or three days in advance and cooked using salt, sugar, soy sauce and other condiments that assure they would keep through the three days of New Year's celebrations. In order to heal whatever indigestion may have resulted from the continuous consumption of such processed or preserved foods, the seventh day of the first month of the year was set aside as jinjitsu sechi-bi on which it became the practice to make nanakusa-gayu. This is an easily digestible rice gruel mixed with a variety of fresh herbs believed to provide important nutrients gathered the previous day from the hills.
Each of the seven herbs is known for particular qualities. Seri, which spreads in swampy areas such as gulleys, streambeds, and along the divisions between rice paddies, is a perennial. Its stems have a distinctive piquant aroma deriving from essential oils such as diethyl phthalate, and it contains vitamins B1 and C, and quercetin. Lightly blanched, seri is useful for reducing phlegm, stimulating the appetite and as a gentle laxative. Nazuna is a biennial found along the pathways among fields and at roadsides. Gathered at its flowering season, it contains choline, acetylcholine, fumaric acid and other nutrients and is used to treat high blood pressure and constipation. The leaves are rich in iron and manganese, and regular consumption with rice gruel is believed to prevent anemia and stimulate the blood supply. Nazuna is often preserved by boiling young shoots for 5 minutes, then draining and drying them in the sun.
The ancient name of hahakogusa was ogyo. It is a biennial that grows in sunny roadsides and open pastures. It is said that young sprouts of this plant were once plucked and used to flavor mochi (pounded rice) cakes made for March 3 ritual offerings. The young leaves are boiled, then soaked in cold water to remove the harshness and eaten as a green vegetable doused with soy sauce or as a salad flavored with sesame dressing.
Hakobe is a biennial found in the fields, along roadsides and in kitchen gardens. It buds in the fall and grows throughout the winter, blossoming in early spring. After boiling 2-3 minutes and plunging in cold water, it is tasty as a vegetable sidedish, with soy sauce or a seasoned vinegar. It is also good as tempura or boiled in soy sauce and sake broth (ni-hitashi, sometimes with fish).
Kooni tabirako (popularly known as hotoke-no-za, or "seat of the Buddha") is a biennial that grows in dry fields in the winter season, spreading out flat along the ground from its roots. New shoots are gathered, lightly boiled, and plunged in cold water before use as an ingredient for soups, as a green-vegetable sidedish, or seasoned with a sweet or vinegar-based sauce. Its slightly bitter taste makes it well suited to tempura as well.
Kabu, a variety of turnip, is a biennial. Records show that in the third month of the year 593 the emperor encouraged the cultivation of kabu as a supplemental food to the diet of "five grains" (rice, wheat, awa millet, kibi millet, and beans). The root contains amino acid, glucose and vitamin C, and the leaves are rich in vitamins C, A, B1 and B2.
Daikon has, like kabu, been cultivated from ancient times in Japan. Its large, white root contains hydratopectim, adenin, histidine, arginine, chlin, methylmercaptan (the peculiar smell of grated daikon root), diastase and vitamin C. The leaves are even more nutritious than the root, containing histine, arginine and vitamins A and C. Wherever they live, people around the world have sought to keep healthy by eating the wild plants and vegetables obtainable close at hand. Sometimes these plants are used medicinally to treat injuries or illness and sometimes they are consumed as fresh vegetables in the daily diet. Such food resources in the wild are limited, however, so it is necessary to cultivate these wild herbs so that they will always be readily available. It is worth remembering that the origins of "vegetables" lie in the edible plants and herbs found growing in the wild.
Koji Tanaka is a consultant specializing in medicinal plants. He was formerly a professor at the Medicinal Plant Garden of the Showa College of Pharmaceutical Sciences and head of the Tokyo Metropolitan Medicinal Plant Garden.