Fukinotō tastes like the smell of a garden after the rain, a walk through the forest, like the color green, and like soil: it tastes like spring in Japan. In Tokyo, this delicacy fetches a high price, but once I learned to identify fukinotō, I saw it everywhere in the countryside (where I spent March and April). It emerges while spring still resembles winter’s monotone, it’s pale green almost-dayglo scapes dotting the landscape like delicious beacons. I gleefully gathered handfuls and my friend explained how to boil fukinotō to soften its bitterness then chop it small and mix it with miso and mirin to make fukinotō-miso, or delicately batter it and fry it as tempura.
Here’s how I came to know this treat. While out for a run in early March, having just arrived in the countryside of Ishikawa prefecture, I noticed a man picking something by the roadside with his car pulled over in a hastily. He bent over near some yellow flowers, but his focus was closer to the ground. A few miles later, I saw a woman crouched by the roadside with the trunk of her van open, and then just around a bend in the road, another person—more purposeful and less spontaneous—worked away filling a bag, trowel in hand. I wanted to know what they were harvesting; but, self-conscious about my poor Japanese and concerned these foragers might be protective of their secrets like mushroom hunters, I ran silently past.
With the help of an out-of-print English-language guide to Japanese plants I figured out that what they were picking was fukinotō, the scapes of butterbur (a relative of the coltsfoot indigenous to the US) that yellow flower I’d seen. The next day I asked a friend about it and her eyes lit up. She showed me how to harvest the tight neon green bundles of leaves just as they force through the cold soil and decomposing tree-leaves leftover from winter. They’re most tender before they begin to bud. By the time the thick stalks shoot up with thick cluster of yellow flowers, they are no longer good to eat.
Getting to know the wild plants is my way of relating to a place. (I loved this article about field guides). Once, when I was about 9, I cooked an entire meal from the forest, field and swamp around my house, using my parents battered copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus as my guide. There was chickweed salad with wildflowers, and soup with dandelion greens and cattail root. On any given day that I was not confined by school, I was in the woods, chewing on licorice fern roots and imagining elaborate fantasies of wilderness survival, fueled by The American Boy’s (and Girls, as my aunt had handwritten on the cover for me) Handy Book. Or I was at the library checking out piles of books about elk, or whatever creature or plant had caught my notice that week.
My adult life in New York City offers few chances for that kind of close relationship with nature. I see mugwort and lambsquarters sprouting through the pavement, but wouldn’t dare eat their leaves for fear of lead poisoning. I do harvest maitake mushrooms from a secret spot, and pick mulberries that are otherwise left to the birds. I feed cardinals and doves on my fire escape. But it’s not the same as being immersed in greenery, feeling at once protected by your knowledge awed by nature's vastness.
When I visit family in the Pacific Northwest, spotting the plantain leaves that will treat a nettle sting, or the white star-like flowers that will soon be salmonberries make me feel profoundly at home. When I go somewhere new, learning its plants and animals lets me feel like I belong, I’m not just a tourist passing through.
Notes: Fukinotō, like many wild plants, can be toxic if eaten in large quantities or handled improperly. If you want to harvest and cook it, make sure to educate yourself and don’t go overboard.
Typically, fukinotō-miso is cooked, and often sweetened with sugar. I don't cook it (other than blanching the scapes) or add sugar; this is more like the Korean preparation.