Like clockwork, every year around the spring equinox, as the ducks and egrets return to the rivers and sprigs of green grass begin sprouting in lawns, people in Japan take to the hills to pick mountain vegetables, herbs and other wild foods. As translator and writer Winifred Bird explains in her new book, Eating Wild Japan: Tracking the Culture of Foraged Foods, with a Guide to Plants and Recipes, there is no common Japanese phrase that corresponds precisely to the English terms “wild food” or “foraged food”. In English, “wildcrafted” foods can include anything that is not a product of agriculture—from wild boar and wild mushrooms to dandelions picked in empty lots and seaweed collected on rocks along the seashore. Perhaps because wild foods have always been part of the Japanese way of “getting out in nature”, there is not an all-encompassing term. The closest word, muses Bird, is sansai, which denotes mountain vegetables and herbs and can sometimes include nuts and mushrooms.
In the fascinating introduction to her book, Bird considers the way in which these foraged foods have long existed alongside Japan’s rice-centered culture. Invoking anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s classic book on the subject, Rice as Self, Bird reminds readers that rice has been the main ritual food of Shintoism and the staple of elite diets since it took hold in Japan over two thousand years ago. “Each grain,” she writes, “was thought to have a soul, and for many centuries people believed that consuming rice gave human beings sacred energy and power.” Paddy farming dictated how water was shared and how the landscape was divided up. And because taxes were based on rice harvests, the crop has always represented wealth, culture and the Japanese psyche itself.
Despite the supremacy of rice, wild foods have never really disappeared from the Japanese diet, Bird writes, in the same way they have in other countries. Of course, before agriculture, all foods were foraged. But even after the introduction of agriculture in Japan, the riches of the forests, rivers and oceans were a source of sustenance during times of famine. In her chapter on the horse chestnut, or tochi-no-mi, she describes how this wild food source served as the ultimate safety net against famine. It also formed a large part of the pre-agriculture-age diet of the Japanese. One Middle Jomon period gravesite, dating 2,500 to 1,500 BCE, found near the southern tip of Lake Biwa. uncovered a huge quantity of clam and nut shells that upon inspection were found to be mostly horse chestnuts. Archaeologists speculated that these horse chestnuts comprised thirty percent of the Jomon diet. In chapter two, she goes into the process by which the toxins are leached out of the horse chestnuts and a few ways that people still enjoy them today.
This is the terroir of seaweed and spring greens, of ferns and bamboo, of wild fish and foraged mushrooms.
Bird’s book is organized into essays on subjects ranging from wild bamboo and ferns to wild-crafted seaweed. From the seven herbs of the Japanese New Year to sansai rice and noodles, the essays illuminate how so many of Japan’s most iconic seasonal foods are foraged, not grown. To drive this point home, the essays are accompanied by wonderful recipes. There is also a plant guide and charming illustrations by Paul Poynter. Eating Wild Japan, which will also resonate even with people not accustomed to warabi or kogomi, can sitting companionably on shelves next to books like Gina Rae La Cerva’s Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food, John Cage’s A Mycological Foray: Variations on Mushrooms, Josie Iselin’s surprising hit, The Curious World of Seaweed, and Sandor Katz’s books on fermentation and yes, The Revolution Will Not be Microwaved!
All these books are indeed part of a revolution that aims to de-emphasize the corporatization of food and bring attention to the detriments of intensive land. Bird discusses the way the native Ainu people of Hokkaido were pushed to the point of extinction by the Japanese to the south, in a history reminiscent of the US government’s treatment of Native Americans and Hawaiian Islanders. Known to the Japanese as Ezo or barbarians, when southerners first gained a foothold in Ainu areas, they began their colonization in part through food. Land was turned over to crops, mines caused further Ainu land and river degradation resulting in greater and greater Ainu dependency on Japanese food. Bird is outstanding in illuminating the way food and subjugation have historically been tied together, causing the disappearance of foraging practices. In my favorite chapter on wild crafted seaweeds, she says of these customs that
It is not the kind of knowledge that can be safeguarded solely by scientists and journalists and books. It must be a living knowledge, embedded in culture and cuisine and love for particular places. So it is for seaweed, and so it is for sansai.
This is the terroir of seaweed and spring greens, of ferns and bamboo, of wild fish and foraged mushrooms. Long live the revolution!