Enjoy a Bitter Beginning to Spring with Fuki no To- (蕗の薹), One of Japan`s beloved Wild Vegetables (sansai, 山菜)
By Avi Landau
It can be said that “seasonality” is the most important concept in traditional Japanese culture. Whether you are writing a letter, decorating the alcove in your Japanese style room, selecting the colors you are going to wear, composing a poem, or selecting an annual festival to attend, having an awareness of, and celebrating the season ( not only the wider four seasons, but each of their beginnings, middles, and ends) is how the Japanese have made life beautiful, spiritual, and fun, long before the introduction of modern conveniences, entertainments and distractions.
More than anything else though, Japanese seasonality is celebrated by eating in-season (shoon, 旬) fruits, vegetables, fish and sweets.
Even in this day and age, when almost anything is available all-year-round, many Japanese try to stay in touch with the seasons and traditional cycle of events by enjoying the “classic” dishes of the season – even if just once a year.
In February, one of the anticipated foods is a wild vegetable (one of several commonly eaten in Japan) that is extremely bitter, no matter how you prepare it. Still, as the first new vegetable to appear at the beginning of the new year, they are eagerly anticipated, and their bitterness relished - the taste even believed to be represent a cleansing action, that removes all the toxins that have built up in your body over winter.
I`m talking about FUKI NO TO- (蕗の薹), which the dictionary tells me are called butterbur sprouts, in English. They are one of the handfull of classic SANSAI (wild vegetable) that the Japanese have enjoyed (and still do) in early spring and summer.
Fuki (butterbur), the adult form of this vegetable, are more commonly eaten in Japan (especially the stems), but their sprouts, which appear in February or March (depending on your location) are loaded with more nutrients (pottasium, phosphate, iron)- and were thus extremely important to past ages when getting proper nutrition was a major concern.
Many Japanese remember the trauma of their first tastes of fuki no to- so bitter that they thought they`d been poisoned! But the connection with the season and the coming of spring remain strong – and the very same people who scrunched up their faces in disgust as children slowly savor these sprouts every year as adults (they are an especially good accompaniment to Japanese sake!)
I was liucky this year. My friend Junko K. discovered dozens of fuki sprouts growing in her back yard ! After returning from her usual early morning walk, she went into the kitchen and started preparing breakfast – with the radio on. The NHK broadcaster mentioned that the fuki sprouts were already appearing here and their across Japan…. so Junko took a peek out her window… and VOILA! There they were. And as part of Japan`s beautiful culture of sharing in the bounty, a few hours later, I was kindly given some of the precious sprouts.
Since it is best to prepare them as soon as possible, I prepared a classic fuki sprout dish that very evening – fuki no to miso (though they are also commonly eaten as tempura)
First I washed the sprouts
boiled them for about three minutes,
soaked them for 3 minutes,
strained them again,
squeezed out excess water
and roughly chopped them.
Then, separately, I prepared the miso mix
miso, mirin (cooking sake) sake, sugar, all mixed together.
Then I sauteed the sprouts in sesame oil and added the miso mixture and cooked until liquid evaporated.
When it was ready, I poured myself a little cup of some good local sake… took a dab of the paste on my tongue… and mmmm…. I got into the season!