No matter the time or place, market days have always been a way for city-dwellers to connect with the land. The multi-colored stalls offer a tangible vehicle to our agrarian heritage. The fresh baked bread, the luscious heirloom tomatoes, crisp apples, and bright tender greens! They are transportive morsels that in a single bite find us among the fields and orchards of simpler times.
However, growing alongside these State Fair bumper zucchinis and prize-winning rutabagas lie an oft-forgotten heritage that offers seedy and spicy flavors of the meadows and forests. Found in glens and amongst the brambles dwell the wild herbs and edibles that for centuries served as an important source of food and flavor.
Most every country has their prized wild edibles. Although not often on the menus in Asian restaurants in the United States, China, Korea and Japan have a long tradition of including delectable wild delicacies to every season. In the Korean tradition, you often find aster scaber incorporated into savory side dishes. (For more complete reading, here is an interesting academic paper on wild edibles on Jeju Island, Korea.) Japan has its own seasonal traditions including sansai tori, wild greens picking, ortakenoko tori, wild bamboo shoots hunting in the springtime. These ingredients are renowned for their flavor and, often, health benefits.
Here in the United States it seemed as though consuming wild edibles has been overlooked for decades – something relegated to an alternative and unplugged aspect of society. Now these tasties are on their way to becoming welcome additions on the plate as we reexamine heritage ingredients and flavors. Restaurants such as Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, are some of the movers and shakers behind this trend.
Yet behind every chef interested in diving into these new/old flavors is the person who sources the ingredients. It is these people who truly lie on the forefront of culinary exploration. Perhaps one of the most famous champions of this cause is Tama Matsuoka Wong, a lawyer turned forager and environmental steward who embraced the wild side!
Raised in New Jersey, Tama admits that she did not have a green thumb. In fact, it was her decided lack of gardening skills that caused her to reexamine those persistent “weeds.” Surely, they couldn’t be so bad… And, as it turns out, they aren’t. Actually, some plants are decidedly edible. Some also taste like cardboard, it’s true. However, there is a small percentage of wild plants that offer vibrant flavors unlike anything found in grocery stores. They are bright and bitter, bold and tangy, mild and meaty, and so on…
Determined to learn more and taste these flavors ourselves, The Gohan Society embarked on its inaugural fieldtrip on a rainy, misty day in early May to New Jersey. Driving through well-maintained farmland and preserved forestland, you can tell there is a deep-seeded pride of home and love of nature all around. A similar spirit is found in Tama’s beautifully restored farmhouse. Yet, it wasn’t the indoors we had come to see – we came to discover the magic that lay just beyond the porch steps.
Read the entire article here.