By Avi Landau
As spring deepens, the trees which had been bare over the winter fill out with the fresh greenery of young leaves. For the many in Japan who still celebrate the seasons and try to maintain seasonality in their meals, the new tree leaves which are most cherished in spring are those of the SANSHO TREE ( the Japanese pepper tree, Zanthoxylum piperitum).
These distinctively fragrant and flavorful leaves, which are called KI NO ME (木の芽), literally tree sprouts, in Japanese are used both as a garnish for various spring dishes, and as an ingredient itself.
And while those living in big Japanese cities have to pay relatively high prices at supermarkets for a few of these tasty leaves, here in Tsukuba ( and the anywhere else out in the country) there is plenty of wild sansho there for the picking in the woods. Many people also have these trees growing in their gardens, and if you ask, you will more than likely be able to walk away with at least a small bagfull.
Even if you dont plan on making these leaves a part of your meal, I recommend that at least you take a whiff of their distinctive aroma. If you pick , or are given some, hold them in one hand with your palm facing up, and then slap them hard with your free hand. The fragrance will come wafting up instantly.
For those of you who would like to have a deeper and more fulfilling KI NO ME experience, let me tell you how to make some savory, miso based pastes, which go terrifically well with seasonal vegetables such as bamboo shoots and UDO, squid, or tofu.
I learned how to make them from Asako Seo who used fresh KI NO ME picked at her friend`s garden.
Ideally, to make these pastes you will need a mortar and pestle,though I`m sure that if you do not have those available that you will be able to improvise.
The ingredients you will need are:
KI NO ME, miso, seasme seeds, sugar, mirin ( sake for cooking), and vinegar
Seo-San has experimented with these ingredients in various combinations. First I will teach you the one that I found to be most delicious. It is called:
KI NO ME GOMA MISO (木の芽ごまみそ) .
First grind up a handfull of KI NO ME, and do the same to a heaping spoonfull of golden sesame seeds ( mmmm… smells so good!)
Then blend with a tablespoon of miso paste, and sugar and mirin to taste.
Next you might want to try adding a little vinegar to this mixture to make:
KＩ NO ME GOMA SU MISO ( 木の芽ごま酢みそ)
You can also try it with the seasme seeds or vinegar to make KI NO ME MISO (木の芽みそ)
And if you find that you do not care for the sansho leave`s unique taste and aroma you can make pastes without it:
SU MISO (酢みそ): blending vinegar, miso and sugar
or GOMA SU MISO (ごま酢みそ) blending ground sesame seeds, miso, vinegar and sugar
Of course, the most fun is to make all these different pastes and try them out with different foods ( tofu, ika, asparagus, udo, etc,)!
You might have heard of the sansho tree ( Japanese pepper) before, as its seeds are used to make a spice ( called sansho) which is most often encountered at restauants which serve eel ( unagi) and as one of the ingredients of SHICHIMI ( Japanese seven-spice) which is sometimes added to a bowl of hot soba.
This spice is not only tasty ( going perfectly with unagi) but can also bring about a numbing sensation to the lips and tongue.
But while the sansho powder can be enjoyed any time of year, it is NOW is deep spring, that dishes are garnished with and flavored with KI NO ME, not the seeds, but the young leaves of the sanshi tree.