I was discouraged, but not defeated by the bitter butterbur soup experience. I got some books on sansai out of the library last week and tackled their bitter challenge with renewed fervor. I also decided to ask my more experienced Japanese friends for advice. Brushing my teeth in front of the bathroom mirror at work, I asked my coworker (who is a nutritionist) how she recommended that I cook my sansai. With my mouth full of toothpaste it came out something like, “Sansthaitothsuaiishuka?” – but we’ve been brushing our teeth together for months now, so we understand each other.
Even so, she seemed unsure. “Sansthai?”
Her answer confirmed what I said in my last installment on this subject – while there are other ways of preparing them, mountain vegetables are best appreciated battered and fried as tempura. As a general rule I don’t like frying things – it’s unhealthy, it makes the house smell, and big pans of hot oil make me anxious. But the votes had been tallied, and everyone, from by books to my toothbrushing buddy told me that this was the thing to do. So I invited a friend over (just in case I needed a ride to the hospital?) and lined up my veggies.
Mountain Vegetable #1: Kogomi (Ostrich fern fiddleheads – Matteuccia struthiopteris)
The fiddleheads of many different ferns (including bracken fern, warabi, and Japanese flowering fern, zenmai) are edible, and are popular among wild edible collectors. Most need to be blanched or otherwise cooked before consumption to remove the bitter compounds that make them unpalatable and hard on the digestive system.
Mountain Vegetable #2: Tara no Me (New leaf shoots of the Japanese Angelica-tree – Aralia elata)
Relatives of the Japanese Angelica-tree are commonly known as Devil’s Walking Stick, and with good reason. These sticky shrubs grow about 6 meters tall. During the winter a Japanese Angelica-tree loses all its leaves and appear as a thick pole sticking haphazardly out of the ground, the sort that would be perfect for a majestic walking stick – if it weren’t covered in huge, nasty spines. During the spring, new foliage begins to emerge in small buds. If you can get past the prickles, these are some of the most delicious and prized of mountain vegetables.
Mountain Vegetable #3: Seri (Japanese Parsley – Oenanthe javanica)
Seri is a leafy plant that looks quite similar to parsley. It has a distinct aroma, and is used in traditional dishes across Japan, Korea and China where it is found. In Japan it is one of the seven herbs that is mixed into rice porridge and eaten during the festival of Nanakusa no Sekku. Fun fact: almost all other plants in the Oenanthe genus are lethally toxic.
All three of these vegetables, my plant book tells me, are delicious in tempura. (I mean, come on, what isn’t delicious after it’s been dipped in batter and fried?) I chose to make the first two into tempura and save the seri to make seri rice.
- 2 cups steamed brown rice
- Prepare rice as you usually would. While the rice is cooking, boil a pot of water.
- Clean seri and remove the tough ends of the stalks.
- Add seri to boiling water. It will blanch quickly – remove it almost as soon as it has gotten wet and wilted.
- Rinse blanched seri thoroughly with cold water and set it in a bowl of plate. Add a generous pinch of salt. Pick up the seri and squeeze it with your hands until the salt has been thoroughly massaged in.
- Chop seri finely and stir into cooked rice. Serve.
While the rice was finishing up, we started the tempura.
- 12 small tara no me, woody ends and outer leaves removed
- 6 kogomi, cut ends removed
- anything else you want to tempura (we used kabocha squash and salmon – which was really good, by the way – but other popular ingredients include shrimp, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, lotus root, peppers, or just about any other vegetable you have in your fridge)
- 1 egg
- 120~120 g flour (if you have tempura flour, use that, but if not, add about 2 tablespoons of cornstarch)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- about 200 ml cold water
- enough oil to fill your pan a few inches deep
- Heat the oil in a large pan – a wok or a large, deep frying pan works well.
- Prepare your vegetables. Leafy green things like sansai will cook through when they’re dipped in hot oil and only require the removal of any undesirable bits. If you’re using something hard, like squash or sweet potato, microwave it for a minute or so before battering. If you wash your vegetables, make sure they have been patted dry.
- Prepare your batter by mixing the eggs, flour (with starch if you are using all-purpose flour), baking powder and water thoroughly in a large bowl.
- When the oil is hot (try letting a little batter drip into the pan – if it pops and begins to cook, it’s ready) coat your vegetables thoroughly in batter. Use a long pair of wooden chopsticks to lower them carefully into the hot oil. Only cook a few pieces at a time, and allow a little time to heat between batches.
- Cook both sides, flipping occasionally. Remove when the color just begins to change.
- Allow cooked tempura to sit on a paper towel or a sheet of newspaper to absorb any excess oil.
- Serve with salt, soy sauce or tempura broth for dipping.