Sansai
On Beyond Ramps

towards an American sansai

Sansai means, literally,  ‘mountain vegetable.’  Mountain vegetable implies wild vegetable., as opposed to cultivated (on the plains).  Mountains are high, closer (than plains) to heaven.  Mountain vegetables, because they are wild, because they grow closer to heaven, embody more qi (ch’i) (usually translated as ‘energy’ – this is the energy which flows in the acupuncture channels, and is activated by ‘Tai Ch’i’ exercises).

Furthermore, most sansai are the early spring shoots of various perennial herbs and shrubs, so eating them partakes of the vital, bursting-forth energy of spring.  And they are delicious. In Japan, the arrival of sansai in urban restaurants and markets is eagerly anticipated.  Grocery stores offer commbination packages which might contain, e.g. a bamboo shoot, a few fiddleheads, a bunch of mitsuba, some Hosta shoots and of course kinome, the ‘essence of spring.’

I have found, so far, three lists of plants used as sansai in Japan, and they are included below.  The main interest and relevance of these is that almost every one of plants listed occurs or has a closely related species in Eastern N. America (an exception would be Hosta – there are no American Hosta spp.  But Hosta is well-established in American gardens, and even if only deer eat them at present, that will be changing soon…)

Of particular interest is the fact that most of these are woodland plants.  While our S Appalachian ‘rich woods’ are famous as the source of most of the well-known American medicinal herbs, we rarely think of them as providing food.  And while it is true that the amount of food we can gather, particularly from the spring ephemerals and also the tender early shoots of many woodland perennials, is relatively small, it is also true (or so I and many others hold), that it’s ‘the best food you’ll eat all year.’  (Not to mention that it comes right at the time we are most pining for fresh green plant energy.)

We supply ‘mountain vegetables’ to three nearby restaurants, and their chefs want everything we can bring them.  So we are not looking for more customers for our sansai;  rather, we see our niche as offering seeds and ‘starts’ to folks who’d like to establish these exciting, new (to us) food plants for their own future harvest.  This includes anyone who grows vegetables for discriminating chefs.
So, our project is to develop a repertoire of American sansai plants.  Below are the the plants we are currently working with (more to come): we’ll be adding pix and instructions as time permits.  Most of these are available either as seeds or bare-root plants or divisions.

  • ramps
  • solomon’s seal
  • indian cucumber root
  • ostrich fern
  • hosta
  • mitsuba
  • bamboo
  • udo
  • kinome
  • woods nettle

next ten:

  • Japanese knotweed
  • Canada lovage
  • tall bellflower
  • anise root
  • aralia / acanthopanax spp.
  • toothwort
  • Smilax
  • Chinese wolfberry
  • arrowhead
  • Oenanthe

 

SANSAI PLANTS

(from website www.shizuokagourmet.com)  This website has a nice photo of each item.

Allium victorialis  ainu negi
thistle    azami
akebia  chocolate vine (fruit)
Polygonatum odoratum    amadokoro
Petasites   giant butterbur   fukinoto
Glehnia littoralis    hamaboufuu
Senecio cannabifolius    hangonsou
Lonicera caerulea   hascup    hasukappu
flying spider monkey tree fern   hikagehego
Urtica thunbergiana    irakusa
Polgonum   Japanese knotweed    itadori
Erythronium   dogtooth violet   katakuri
Hosta fortunei    plantain lily   kiboushi
Matteucia (?)   ostrich fern   kogomi   (exists as green & red)
Acanthopanax sciadophylloides   koshiabura
Lycium   Chinese wolfberry   kuko
Clerodendron    harlequin glory bower peanut butter shrub    kusagi
silver vine (fruit)   matatabi
canadense   mitsuba   Japanese honewort
Anemone faccida    nirinsou
Allium macrostemon   nobiru
Synurus pungens    oyamabokuchi
Clethra barbinervis   ryoubu
Actinidia arguta    sarunashi
Japanese parsley    seri
Portlaca   common purslane    suberiyu
bamboo shoots    takenoko
Taraxacum    dandelion   tanpopo
Aralia elata   tara no me
Equisetum (arvense?0   horsetail   tsukushi
Adenophora triphylla    tsuroganeninjin
Arali cordata    udo
”          ”            yamaudo (bundle of blanched shoots)
Hosta montana    urui
Pteridium aquilinum    warabi
Vitis    crimson glory vine (fruit)
wild horseradish    yamawasabi
Osmunda japonica    zenmai
aiko
akamizu
aomizu

 

Sansai – ‘wild mountain vegetables’

Sansai convey a strong sense of spring and are a great favorite of vegetarians, often featuring in the menus of shojin ryori (zen buddhist cuisine)… The following is a list of the commonest plants used:

lamb’s quarters Chenopodium album var centrorubrum
asatsuki chive Allium ledebourianum
ashitaba Angelica keiskei
Japanese butterbur, unopened buds Petasites japonicus
chive Allium victorialia var platyphyllum
Japanese knotweed Polygonum cuspidatum
water shield Brasenia schreberi
licorice Glycyrrhiza uralensis
dog’s tooth violet Erythronium japonicum
ostrich fern fiddleheads Matteucia struthiopteris
indian plantain Cacalia delphiniifolia, C. hastata ssp. orientalis
sasa bamboo Sasa kurilensis
red garlic Allium grayi
plantain lily Hosta sieboldiana
saltwort Salsola komarovii
water dropwort Oenanthe javanica
green brier Smilax riparia
angelica tree shoots Aralia elata
field horsetail, fertile shoots Equisetum arvense
acanthopanax Acanthopanax gracilistylus
nettle Elatostema umbellatum v. majus
bracken Pteridium aquilinum v. latiusculum
udo Aralia cordata
aster Aster yomena
wormwood Artemisia princeps
royal fern Osmunda japonica
Richard Hosking, A Dictionary of Japanese Food (Tuttle, 1995)
The third list is in the Wikipedia article on sansai.