When you see Sansai 山菜 on a menu in Japan it is a sign that Spring has arrived! When people think of Spring in Japan of course the beautiful Sakura is the first thing that comes to mind, but delve a little deeper and there is something emerging from the soil towards the warm spring sunshine up in the mountainous regions. A variety of edible wild green shoots start to push through the soil these are nature’s bounty known as “Sansai”. People can forage for these edible treasures to use in Japanese cuisine. Often seen in Shojin Ryori Buddhist temple food. Nowadays you can see cultivated varieties also in the supermarkets of Japan. Although thought to be many varieties these are the most commonly used ones.
(thank you to my friend Masami Instagram (veggylife_m in Japan for the images) udo, nanohana and warabi
Kokomo (こごみ 屈) Ostrich Fern can also be (Kogomi or zenmai ) known as fiddleheads
Fuki no tō (ふきのとう 蕗の薹)
Yomogi (よもぎ 蓬)
Nanohana (なのはな 菜の花)
Wasabina (わさびな 山葵菜)
Take no ko (bamboo shoots) (たけのこ 竹の子)
Yama udo (やまうど 山うど)
Shungiku (しゅんぎく 春菊)
Field Horsetail 土筆
Warabi (bracken shoots ) (蕨)
Below are some lovely young wasabi leaves and flowers in season at the moment, you can buy them from the Wasabi Company the link is either down the side or at the bottom of the page depending on your browser. They are delicious in salads or pickled in vinegar.
I have often been intrigued by these vegetables not only because of the shape of them but every spring there is an explosion of people in Japan cooking them and sharing their creations on Instagram.
I did manage to get some precooked packages of sansai vegetables and also some lovely other ones fresh from the Japanese vegetables growers I use Nama Yasai Farm.
Shungiku ( edible chrysanthemum leaves )
So using a mixture of fresh and packaged sansai I wanted to create three meals you can make easily using what ever you can find. Even if you cannot get mountain vegetables you can use other vegetables for instance : Udo is also referred to as Japanese mountain asparagus so I will be using asparagus instead.
You may also be able to find the parboiled sealed packet variety of bamboo shoots ( I do not recommend the tinned variety as they have other ingredients added).
Nanohana is related to the broccoli family and is the young shoots of the rapeseed plant so I suggest using tender stem broccoli instead. The boiled packet of mountain vegetables I got from the Japan centre has bracken, bamboo shoots kikurage, enoki and nameko mushrooms and carrots.
The first meal is a simple rice bowl with these vegetables mixed in known as Sansai maze Gohan. If your using the packaged vegetables they are precooked and ready to use just drain and rinse under running water.
All you need to do is cook up some rice I recommend adding a little mirin and soy sauce to the liquid you cook your rice in . You could also use kombu dashi . Just soak a piece of kombu in water over night. Rinse your rice as normal and put in your cooker or pot. Add kombu dashi and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce and mirin to each cup of rice used. This will add a nice flavour to your rice. Once the rice is cooked mix in your vegetables Maze Gohan means mixed rice . If you are using other vegetables steam them before mixing in except leaf vegetables which can be just mixed straight into the hot rice. I added some extra shimeji mushrooms and strips of aburaage ( fried tofu ).
The rice also can be used to make onigiri. This is an omusubi (meaning gently pressed not squeezed).
The next is a country style meal originating from Tsugaru region Aomori prefecture. A nutrious soup with miso or just a soy sauce broth with mountain vegetables and other vegetables added like carrot, gobo and daikon. Also to give the soup extra sustenance deep fried tofu (aburaage ) or freeze dried tofu (Koya-dofu) is added. This soup is called Kenoshiru. The vegetables are normally cut into chunks and as well as tofu sometimes beans like fava or lima are added. Just use a kombu dashi again for your broth. I sautéed in sesame oil then simmered any uncooked vegetables in dashi first then add tofu and any precooked veggies. Finally add your miso or soy sauce and any greens which ever you prefer.
Served up with some warm crusty homemade fresh bread spread with shio-koji tofu (see post for recipe) and some tsukemono, there are pickled wasabi flowers in there.
The final meal you could try is Ankake Mountain Vegetables. Ankake basically is a thick starchy sauce, this dish uses the mountain vegetables with dashi, soy sauce and potato starch from Hokkaido.
This is nice served either with rice or udon noodles a typical dish from Iwate prefecture or Kyoto style with some tofu. Cook up any uncooked veggies first maybe add daikon and carrot other mushrooms like shiitake or shimeji to a pan and sauté with a little sesame oil then add in dashi around 2 cups simmer until your uncooked vegetables are almost ready then add your precooked veggies, and any leaves like shungiku or mustard greens and aburaage strips (fried tofu cut into strips ) finally to your dashi add tamari or soy sauce and mirin a tablespoon of each also a little ginger juice is nice too. Now turn off the heat. Mix a few teaspoons of potato starch into a bowl with some water to form a slurry this is called katakuriko and gradually add this to your pan. Now turn the heat back on and carry on simmering and stirring until the sauce becomes thicker. Add a final dash of sesame oil for extra flavour.
I added a sprinkle of mizuna flowers for extra colour. Served with rice, tsukemono, Japanese potato salad and a Botamochi for dessert.
As we now look forward to longer days and the chill of winter turns into warmer weather with the Spring Equinox or Shunbun we could make a popular wagashi made at this time in Japan called Botamochi, in the Spring named after the tree peony Botan, in the autumn the same wagashi is called Ohagi named after the clover bush hagi.
The equinox is a Buddhist festival in Japan known as Higan or in the spring Haru no Higan, at this time the wagashi maybe taken along with flowers or incense to ancestral graves as offerings. The wagashi is eaten to call to the ancestors for protection of the rice fields. The confection is made from pounded sweet Mochi rice with a red bean filling. They are often rolled in kinako ( soy bean flour ) or ground black sesame, some are reversed so the red bean paste is on the outside. If you would like to make these for yourself please check out my previous posts for Ohagi and Botamochi.
As the wheel of the year is turning once more seasonal bounty ingredients in Japan include sansai ( list above), asparagus, spring cabbage, new potatoes, broads beans, broccoli, shiitake and wasabi.
I hope no matter where you are in the world you can think about your own Shun ingredients see also my first post on this (Live by the Shun the philosophy of seasonal eating part 1 Winter ) and make some seasonal foods for yourself.
Happy Spring Equinox!