Picking and Eating Wild MUKAGO (零余子)- baby yams !
By Avi Landau
On my way to a little adventure in the woods surrounding the ruins of Konda Castle ( 金田城), near the Sakura Junior High School, I turned off the road and headed onto a little dirt trail. I then noticed an old neighbor of mine busily doing something by a bush of some sort. I called out a greeting so as not to startle her (Have you noticed that when Japanese are doing work outside, they never seem to glance up or around? I always attribute this to a deep focus on what they are doing, which is probably true, though some have told me that it’s just a way of avoiding having to say hello!), and then I asked her what she was doing. “I’m picking NUKAGO,” she said, “why don’t you join me?” So I thought, ”Well, why not?!”
Nukago is the archaic name (still often used by native Ibarakians) for MUKAGO (零余子), which look like tiny potatoes (they are actually tiny yams) clinging delicately to vines which grow out of the stems of the yama imo ( Japanese yams). I say delicately, because to be picked, they merely have to be touched and they come right off. I helped my neighbor gather up a small bag-full. She said she was going to cook them up with the rice in her rice cooker (some people also add ginkgo nuts and some kombu stock). Some Ibarakians also fry, roast, or boil them with salt, sake, soy sauce, etc. I found some original recipes online as well.
Mukago can actually be found on sale at some supermarkets for about 500 yen a fistful (as you can see in the blog linked above), but buying them could never match the fun of finding and picking them yourself. Kids, especially, always enjoy cooking up what they have foraged.
Many of your Japanese friends might not have ever tasted or even heard of mukago (also remember that in Ibaraki it is often called nukago), and those who HAVE might not rave about their taste. Still, having mukago at least once in autumn is considered a MUST by many, since it is a rustic symbol of the season and a welcome change of pace from just plain ol’ rice.
Mukago can be found in this area throughout autumn. In English they are called wild yam propagules (or bulbils) as they are the means by which the yam plants propagate (by dropping these little babies to the ground). You can find them in wild fields, by the side of the road, and even in some parks.
Happy hunting !