Wednesday, April 12, 2006


SECRET TREES


We weren't going to be beat this year like last year, this is a dog-eat-dog business here in Japan, the hunting of mountain vegetable delicacies like the reclusive tara-no-me (Aralia elata), which is very fussy as to where it grows and prefers as much privacy as it can get. To look at the plant you'd never suspect that it's the holy grail of Japanese wild vegetable delicacies. It has a starkly vicious appearance that is well reflected in its folk name in English, 'devil's walking stick.' Even the monkeys and deer leave it alone. Understandably.

Shooting straight up for sometimes three meters or more if left to grow unharvested, its entire surface is covered with hard sharp spines up to an inch long. It grows from its branchtips, where each spring the scarlet-tinted jade buds emerge, which is what you harvest if you can get to them before everybody else does.

As newbies to this business for the last ten years, on our walks we'd come across tara-no-me that had already been harvested: missed again, wait another whole year. But on our eclectic rambles we also found some secret places where few or no one looks, right in our own neighborhood, and we marked them for this year's search.

So we'd been keeping an eagle eye on our tara-no-me hunting grounds in several places around here and knew the time was approaching; then this morning when I saw a local elderly sansai (mountain vegetable) expert gent walking along the road and looking upward into the roadside undergrowth and carrying a long stick that had a hook on the end, I knew today was the day. Immediately we set out in our offroad shoes, with stout gloves and a bag.

The first of our secret trees had died since last year; it had been overharvested, too visible from the road, not so secret after all. Then we pioneered in to one of our really secret tara-no-me places and there were the tall thorny beauties shooting up over three meters, multibranched, a big fat bud at the end of each branch. I'd grab the branches with my thick leather work gloves on (even so, some of the thorns would get through to ouch level) and bend them slowly down, walking my hands outward, till Echo could reach and snap off the bud. There's nothing quite like that snap. We left the very top buds on, so the trees could continue their life's work.

Every secret place we went, we were the first ones there (I guess we're pros now), so we got a goodly bag full of fragrant buds, some to have as tempura with rice tonight, some to give to unfortunate tara-no-me-less friends in the city (they could buy the precious delicacies - packaged like jewels, one or two to a package - at caviar prices in the supermarket, but fresh wild tastes - well, fresh and wild), the rest to save for later when there are no tara-no-me to be had anywhere at any price.

No, I'm not telling you where. But if you stop by we'll give you a couple so you can have a banquet too.


*

5 comments:

Chancy said...

Yum yum that looks good. What does it taste like? Asparagus?


from your link:

"It is introduced about 300 years before from Portugal."

Interesting.

Robert Brady said...

It tastes nothing like asparagus... it has a very mild butterbur flavor maybe, slightly wild astringent, wonderful texture and mouthfeel; visually it's great too, being variously shaped and colored, all the subtleties that Japanese love in their food, to say nothing of the tonically invigorating fact that it's a bud. That faulty-English quote refers to tempura, not taranome.

jh said...

I've feasted on these blighters and have the scars to prove it.
A whole tribe of us were guided by a sansai expert (just as you describe) on a walk in the countryside here in north Hiroshima. We collected all sorts of edible grasses and shoots, some from the most inaccessible places. Then the tenpura feast began in a renovated grass-roofed house used as a local community centre.

It was a pretty novel experience for me, but I have nagging doubts that absolutely anything would taste okay if it was tenpura-ed.

Alfred said...

natsukashiiiiiiii...

Robert Brady said...

jh: I've had some sansai tempura that didn't make the grade... most recently, slightly advanced-growth fukinoto...

alfred: too bad taranome doesn't ship very well...