top of page

Foraging and the Japanese 'sansai' tradition

As supermarket shelves were stripped empty with the outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus, we have been reminded how precarious our food supply really is in our modern lives. It is therefore heartening to see that this has led to a growing interest in self-sufficient living, even among those who have never grown their own veggies before. During most of human history, #selfsufficiency has been the norm, and famine resulted when people could not gather or produce enough food. It is only since the 20th century with industrialisation and globalisation, the number of people living in cities and working in “day jobs” dramatically increased, bringing with it a consumer lifestyle—and the loss of self-sufficiency.

Many cultures around the world have a custom of #foraging for wild edible plants, especially in challenging environments where agriculture did not always produce an abundance of food. In the Japanese countryside, gathering ‘#sansai’ or wild vegetables is an important tradition. As winter gives way to spring, many Japanese roam the forests and fields to collect a huge range of edible plants, as new shoots burst forth from ground that may have been mantled by snow only a week ago. For the countryfolk, sansai gathering also represents an important social activity that brings people together after spending much of the long winter indoors. The heat and humidity of Japanese summer brings luxuriant growth, and more opportunities for sansai gathering. As the landscape takes on brilliant autumnal hues, the countryfolks once again head outdoors to gather wild fruits, nuts, root vegetables and mushrooms—including chestnuts, walnuts, persimmons, wild yam and shimeji.

A variety of sansai growing in the ‘Snow Country’ region of central Japan in early summer

Sansai remains an important part of traditional Japanese cuisine, especially in country-style cooking. Much sansai is also consumed by Japanese living in cities and towns, so much so that several varieties of sansai are now being cultivated as a commercial crop. This is remarkable in a modernised country such as Japan, considering that the custom dates back well over 10,000 years ago to the prehistoric Jōmon people, the ancestors of the modern Japanese people.

A simple country-style lunch featuring sansai dishes including bracken shoots and wild thistle root

Every country household in Japan seems to have a variety of recipes, passed down the generations, that make use of different sansai as they become available through the seasons. Much sansai is preserved and enjoyed during leaner times of the year, as well as being stored as emergency food. The sansai tradition represents age-old wisdom that has allowed the Japanese to survive on mountainous islands with little arable land, a strongly seasonal climate, and a range of natural disasters that can wipe out a year’s worth of crops instantaneously.

Sansai being sold at Kanazawa’s Ōmichō Market in early spring

The sansai tradition is all about knowledge accumulated over thousands of years—what plants are edible, where and when to gather them, and how to prepare and use them as food. Some plants are poisonous and should not be touched at all, while others contain harmful or bitter compounds that need to be eliminated before they can be eaten. Some edible plants have lookalikes that are toxic—in the Japanese countryside, children are taught at an early age how to differentiate them.

In my view, such knowledge is vital if we are to lead a more self-sufficient lifestyle, while reducing our footprint on the environment. Foraging is gaining interest in Australia and we too can develop a ‘sansai’ culture of our own—following in the footsteps of our indigenous people, among the greatest foragers and survivors on the earth. Many plants found in Australian cities and the countryside are edible, including common #weeds such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus; see photos below), purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and fat hen (Chenopodium album). Not only are these weeds edible, many of these have outstanding nutritional and medicinal properties comparable with ‘superfoods’ and dietary supplements that many Australians purchase at exorbitant prices. It is sheer irony that people use health- and environment-damaging garden chemicals to eradicate health-giving plants! So why not turn your next weeding session in the garden into a harvest, and save money on your groceries bill?

Sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), a common garden weed in Australia

A Japanese ‘shira-ae’ salad of sow thistle leaves and persimmon

Apart from weeds, many common garden plants are also edible, including canna lily (Canna edulis), baby sun rose (Aptenia cordifolia), cockscomb (Celosia spp.), chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum spp.), daylily (Hemerocallis spp.), tiger lily (Lilium lancifolium), hosta (Hosta spp.; see photos below) and sedum (Sedum spp.)—in fact, some of these plants originate in Japan and are traditionally gathered as sansai. Then, there are a host of Australian native ornamentals that are edible, such as mint bush (Prostanthera spp.) and kangaroo apple (Solanum aviculare).

Hosta, a popular garden plant in temperate Australia, growing wild on the roadside in central Japan
‘Urui’ or hosta shoot (on righthand side of plate) served with grilled shishamo fish at a country ryokan in northern Japan

So I invite you to explore the wonderful world of foraging and take a step toward self-sufficiency. It’s a win-win for you, your wallet, your health, your garden, and our planet. Follow the links below to some of my #Japaneserecipes using weeds from my Canberra and Melbourne gardens in the traditional Japanese way:

VERY IMPORTANT: NEVER eat plants that you cannot identify with 100% confidence. Some plants are poisonous or contain substances that harm your health. Take particular care with plants that have lookalikes. Avoid collecting plants that may possibly be contaminated by chemicals, pollution or disease-causing agents, e.g. from the roadside.



Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
bottom of page