A Taste of the Mountains, a Taste of the Seasons: Sansai in Japan
Written by Kevin Kilcoyne
Seasonality is key in various cultural and culinary traditions in Japan, with different customs marking the passage of time and changes of scenery. As such, seasonal ingredients are used to celebrate the season and to traditionally be a reminder of the ephemerality of life.
Throughout each season, people savor the food, whatever it might be, during the brief window of availably or peak flavor, before biding their time until that time rolls around the following year. For instance, watermelons are relished in summer, mikan in winter, and persimmons in the fall. When you see ayu, or sweetfish, grilling around the coals, that means that it’s summer, and everyone knows sanma, or mackerel, are best in the fall.
Among the celebrated seasonal produce, however, a long tradition of foraging has made a special place for a certain type of vegetable in Japan, known as sansai (山菜.) Sansai, or literally mountain vegetables, are particularly prized harbingers of spring. These wild mountain vegetables are the buds and shoots of plants that peak through the soil after the snow and frost have begun to melt, and while most were once only available through foraging, some have been successfully cultivated in farms and greenhouses in recent years.
Bitter and earthy, these vegetables mark the flavors and cuisine of spring. They can be eaten raw, though they are usually boiled before preparation, and sansai are often prepared as tempura because the oil tends to soften the astringency common to these plants. Additionally, these foraged veggies can make for great pickles, a method used for centuries to preserve these gifts of spring beyond their short yearly appearances.
In addition to the unique flavors sansai add to the spring palette, they are packed with nutrition and are thought to be full of medicinal properties. It may come as no surprise that these ingredients also appear in the Buddhist temple cuisine of Kyoto, known as shōjin ryōri, as well as the seasonally focused traditional kaiseki cuisine.
Although there are thought to be over 300 varieties, here are twelve of the most commonly eaten sansai vegetables:
Kogomi (こごみ 屈)
Kogomi are the sprouts of the Ostrich fern and because of their coiled appearance are known as fiddleheads, for their resemblance to the namesake instrument. And like some of the other sansai¸ kogomi require boiling or blanching prior to eating or preparing as to remove the sharp bitterness and to make them more digestible. Once boiled, however, they taste similar to asparagus and go quite well simmered in a dashi and soy sauce broth or battered and fried as tempura. Kogomi aren’t the only ferns eaten in Japan, warabi, or bracken fern, and zenmai, cinnamon or osmund fern, are two other commonly foraged fiddlehead varieties.
Fuki no tō (ふきのとう 蕗の薹)
Fuki no tō are the sprouts of the fuki, or butterbur plant, and are some of the first sansai to signal spring, as their faint green buds push through the late winter snow. Sharply bitter in their raw form, these buds are usually boiled for around five minutes prior to preparation or consumption, and have a tougher exterior surrounding the blossoms within that must first be removed. Popular preparations are usually fried in oil, served as tempura, or mixed with miso once sautéed.
Fuki (ふき 蕗)
Like the buds of the fuki plant, the stems are also a spring delicacy. They are usually rolled in salt and boiled before frying or dressing with sauce, or in order to skip the initial boil, one can simply cut the stems into smaller pieces before simmering them in either a combination of dashi and mirin, or soy sauce, sake, and sugar. Simmering them in the soy sauce broth creates the dish known as kyarabuki.
Yomogi (よもぎ 蓬)
Known in English as mugwort, yomogi is an herb used both in Japanese cuisine and traditional Japanese, Chinese, and Korean medicine. It is usually boiled and then pounded into a paste, which can be added to mochi rice cakes, or can be ground into a powder to be used in teas.
Tara no me (たらのめ たらの芽)
Usually exclusively prepared as tempura because it is so bitter, the “king” of sansai, tara no me, are the shoots of the Japanese Angelica, or Aralia tree. Their journey to springtime delicacies begins after they are plucked from their tree branches and their bottoms removed. They are then soaked or boiled before being battered and fried until golden and crispy.
One of the sansai that can often be eaten raw, urui, also known as Hostas, Bingo, or Hosta Montana, is widely cultivated in greenhouses and farms throughout Japan. Milder in flavor, urui can be diced and added to salads or added to stir-fries.
Nanohana (なのはな 菜の花)
Another sansai that can be eaten without parboiling is nanohana, or flowering rapeseed. Unlike urui, nanohana is usually gathered from mountains and fields rather than being farm-grown and has a similar flavor to broccoli. As a result, nanohana (flowers, stalks, leaves and all), can be steamed, sautéed, boiled, or prepared in any way one likes.
Wasabina (わさびな 山葵菜)
Wasabina is a mustard green with a spicy, wasabi-like flavor (hence the name) and can be enjoyed raw in a mixed spring salad or added to soups or stir-fries. Additionally, as the flavor of wasabina changes the later in the season it is picked, more mature leaves are usually cooked rather than eaten raw because of their stronger flavor.
Take no ko (たけのこ 竹の子)
Usually seen throughout the year canned or preserved, take no ko are the prized sprouts of the bamboo plant, coveted for the brief period that they can be dug up and eaten fresh. Take no ko are usually simmered in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, and sugar and enjoyed as a nimono dish, or “simmered dish.” Alternatively, they can be simply boiled and sliced for a salad, or prepared as tempura.
Yama udo (やまうど 山うど)
Usually grown underground, yama udo are offshoots of the udo tree, and are pale in appearance like white asparagus and in fact, they are also known as mountain asparagus. The shoots are usually separated into two parts, the tougher outer and tender inner stems, before both are soaked for at least thirty minutes in a bath of water with a little vinegar. Then, the outer stems can be sliced and sautéed, while the inner stems can be diced thinly and eaten raw. Yama udo is also often pickled, grilled, or prepared for tempura.
Shungiku (しゅんぎく 春菊)
Literally translated as spring chrysanthemum, these greens are prized for their strong, pungent flavors which are often added to soups, stir fries, or nabe hot pot dishes in order to balance out other flavors. Like the wasabina, the flavor of shungiku gets stronger as the plants mature, so they can be picked and used at different times in order to have varying effects on the dishes they are added to.
Gyōjya ninniku (ぎょうじゃにんにく 行者にんにく)
Difficult to cultivate due to its long growth and maturation process, gyōja ninniku, or Alpine leek, is similar to garlic in taste and aroma, but more closely resembles a green onion or scallion, only the stalks are purple and red rather than green. Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido is famous for this seasonal delicacy, and people there have eaten it for its nutritional and medicinal effects for centuries.
While the very essence of what makes sansai vegetables so coveted is the brief appearance they make each year, some are available as pickles or otherwise precooked and preserved. So, there’s no need to wait for spring (and a long flight to Japan) in order to have your first taste of sansai. A simple way of introducing these nutritious veggies into your diet is to add a prepared mix of preserved sansai along with your rice in your rice cooker. Mix in some soy sauce, mirin, sake, and kombu to make sansai gohan. Alternatively, pickled and flaked sansai make easy, delicious additions to salads and side dishes, or simply to add flavor to soups or main dishes.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.
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Lapointe, Rick. “Let us go fiddlehead foragin’, but carefully.” https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2002/04/21/food/let-us-go-fiddlehead-foragin-but-carefully/#.XWltduhKhPY
“What’s in season?...Spring mountain vegetables!” https://www.cook-in-japan.com/single-post/2017/02/27/Whats-in-seasonSpring-mountain-vegetables