In the early Spring you can’t drive a hundred meters into the mountains of rural Japan without seeing cars pulled over on the side of road with their occupants hidden in the trees picking fresh (and free!) san sai, or, mountain vegetables. Harvesting mountain vegetables is like a national past-time in Japan. People have their secret spots where they can spend an entire afternoon picking vegetables to consume fresh, pickled or dried. If you go to pick mountain vegetables you better bring a picnic because it’s a great way to spend time with friends, dip your feet in a cold mountain stream and nap under a mountain cherry tree (a variety that blooms almost a month after it’s city counterparts).
I won’t pretend to be an expert on harvesting mountain vegetables, I just really like to eat them. Popular in Japan, especially in the higher mountain regions where it’s too cold to grow rice, is a dish called san sai soba. This dish is hearty, simple and rustic Japanese cuisine at it’s best. In this dish, soba noodles (made from buckwheat) are covered in steaming hot simple broth and then topped with slightly pickled mountain vegetables including wild mushrooms, fiddleheads, mountain yams and other wild green plants.
On Showa Day, a national holiday in early May commemorating the the reign of Emperor Hirohito, we headed to the slopes of Mt. Arai and collected fresh fiddleheads (warabi 蕨 in Japanese) with our friend, Ike. Fiddleheads are the unfurled frond of a fern and can be found at the base of most fern plants. We had a pretty nice time discovering fiddlehead patches, admiring the mountain cherry blossoms and at the end of the day sticking our feet into a shockingly cold, rushing stream.
Fiddleheads can be pickled, boiled, dried and (my favorite) stir-fried. If you find yourself with some fresh fiddleheads I think that eating them the simple and flash-fried way is best.
Recipe: Pan Fried Mountain Vegetables
fresh fiddle heads
sesame seeds for garnish
To stir-fry fiddle heads: after boiling the fiddleheads for 10 minutes, then removing and drying them, heat the olive oil in the pan and add the boiled and dried fiddleheads to the hot oil. I like to cook these on high heat for a short amount of time. When the fiddleheads are slightly tender, add chopped garlic (as much or as little as you like) and sprinkle with a bit of sea salt. The fiddle heads will close up nice and tight when exposed to heat, so once they’re tight and seared, take them off the heat and eat as soon as possible (preferably with brown rice or soba noodles!). It should be noted that some fiddleheads cannot be eaten, and you are best to stay close to the ostrich fern variety. Make sure you cook them thoroughly to be sure you are removing any possible toxins. If you’re picking fiddleheads yourself and not buying them from a farmers market, be sure to go picking with an expert who knows how to identify the safe ones to eat!