‘True blue’: a story of an unassuming Australian native plant, Japanese art, kimono and bushtucker
The ‘scurvy weed’ or Commelina cyanea, is a trailing native perennial plant commonly found in damp and semi-shaded positions throughout eastern Australia. Also known as the ‘native wandering Jew’ (as opposed to the invasive South American weed Tradescantia fluminensis, to which it is closely related), the unassuming trailing plant was eaten by the early European settlers in Australia to ward off scurvy, hence the common name. Many species of Commelina occur around the world, with several species native to Australia that were also used for food by our Aboriginal people.
In Japan, a very closely related species, the Asiatic dayflower or Commelina communis, has been valued traditionally as ‘sansai’ (foraged wild vegetable), and medicine effective against fluid retention, fever, tonsilitis and diarrhea. More famously, however, the beautiful flowers are a source of a traditional blue dye, which has been produced in the Lake Biwa region near the ancient capital of Kyōto. Being very water-soluble, the dye is used for the initial sketching of designs in producing the ornately patterned ‘yūzen’ kimono textile. It was also used in art, including the ‘ukiyoe’ woodblock prints during the 18th and early 19th centuries, before the mineral-based dye Prussian blue became widely used.
As food, the Asiatic dayflower has a mild taste without the bitterness that characterises many sansai plants, and is commonly used blanched or quickly stir-fried. The Australian scurvy weed can also be used in a similar way; leaves and young shoots are the best, as the stems are quite stingy. In a shaded corner of our Canberra garden, a single plant of the scurvy weed appeared several years ago, and has since become quite a patch. I am a little puzzled as it is not supposedly native to the Canberra region—the nearest occurrences being along the New South Wales south coast. Regardless of its origins, alongside the many varieties of weeds that appear in the garden (sigh…), it has provided us with free food to supplement the harvests from our veggie patch. This time, I was lucky to have been able to gather the last lot of fresh shoots for the season—two days later, a minus 5 degree frost burned off all the leaves. No more scurvy weed until next late spring!
In Japanese cooking, ‘nibitashi’ refers to a specific type of ‘ohitashi’, i.e. cooked vegetable dishes soaked in a dashi-based broth and served at room temperature. The ingredients, which may be raw, blanched or very lightly fried, are simmered in the broth until just cooked—resulting in a deeper flavour than the standard ohitashi recipe in which pre-cooked vegetables are simply soaked in broth just before serving. Nibitashi, as with all ohitashi dishes, are served in Japan as a small side-dish in a traditional multi-dish meal, pairing well with steamed rice or boiled noodles as well as more substantial seafood or meat dishes.
In my nibitashi recipe (find it at https://www.deeplyregionaljapan.com/recipes), I have combined scurvy weed from my own garden with vegetables from the local farmers’ market, and classic Japanese ingredients of hijiki seaweed and adzuki beans—both part of the Japanese diet since the prehistoric Jōmon period (14,000 to 1,000 BC). Among the seaweeds used in Japanese cooking, hijiki is perhaps the least known outside of Japan. Typically used in stir-fried and stewed dishes, hijiki is a nutritional treasure trove, being high in calcium (some twelve times that in cow’s milk), magnesium, vitamin B2, folic acid and dietary fibre. One important point to note is that you should soak and rinse the dried hijiki a couple of times before use, as hijiki can contain naturally occurring inorganic arsenic—which, science has proven, can be effectively leached out with water.
Hijiki has a ‘seashore’ aroma that combines well with the earthy, slightly chocolate-like aroma of adzuki. Both also add textural interest to what is a simple vegetable dish. Feel free to vary the type of vegetables and edible weeds according to what is available to you… the important point is to enjoy seasonal foods, in the spirit of the Japanese sansai tradition…
[IMPORTANT NOTE: NEVER consume weeds or wild plants unless you can identify them with 100% confidence. Do NOT collect edible plants from areas that may have been sprayed with chemicals, are polluted with heavy metals and other substances (e.g. near roads, painted surfaces and industrial activity), or contaminated by human or animal excrement. Many edible plants also require treatment or cooking to remove harmful substances such as toxins and anti-nutrients.]