Exploring Sansai – A Beginner's Guide To Japanese Mountain Vegetables
The beginnings of spring are not only captured by the blossoming of flowers such as sakura or ume plum blossoms in Japan but also through the start of sansai season! Sansai or mountain vegetables are edible wild plants that grow in mountainous regions in Japan and many of them come into season during spring.
What makes sansai so special? Most sansai typically are only in season for a few months as they only grow during the spring months. Therefore, these special vegetables can only be enjoyed for a short time. Moreover, they are generally more nutritious than standard vegetables and contain higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.
These nutritious wild vegetables are a key component of Japanese spring cuisine and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways from being boiled, stir-fried, turned into tempura, pickled, and more. While there are more than 300 types of sansai that exist in Japan, introducing all of them may be a tad bit of an overkill. Instead, we’ll introduce the top 10 most common sansai that you can find in Japan, as well as popular dishes featuring sansai. Be sure to add sansai to your list of things to try when you visit Japan in the spring!
What Is Sansai?
Sansai are wild edible plants grown mostly in mountainous regions, but can also be found growing in fields or flat land. They differ from other vegetables because they tend to be more bitter or astringent, but are also generally higher in nutrients.
These mountain vegetables have quite a history in Japan and are said to have grown since ancient times. In the past, sansai were only cultivated and eaten by residents in poor mountain villages, but they became more of a luxurious item when their nutritional benefits became discovered. Sansai’s popularity rose and people across the country began enjoying and incorporating different sansai into their diets.
While certain types of sansai were only local to specific regions of Japan, the increased popularity of sansai led to widespread cultivation. The number of specialty shops that sell sansai and sansai-based dishes grew due to tourism-related reasons, meaning that the cultivation of certain sansai also grew and started taking place in greenhouses and farms across Japan.
Where Are Sansai Grown?
Depending on the area, you can find sansai local to any region of Japan ranging from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Due to the mass production of sansai which started around the 1980s, sansai that were local to certain regions started becoming commercially cultivated so that people in metropolitan areas such as Tokyo and Osaka could enjoy them.
However, the Tohoku, or the northernmost region on Honshu, Japan’s largest island is thought to be home to most kinds of sansai. Among the prefectures in Tohoku, Aomori, Akita, and Yamagata are famous for sansai cultivation given their vast mountainous terrain.
Different Kinds Of Sansai
As previously mentioned, there are more than 300 kinds of sansai grown in Japan. Instead of introducing every single type, we will introduce 10 of the more common ones that you can find.
Tara No Me
Starting out with what is often referred to as “The King of Sansai”, Tare No Me are what is known as the fresh shoots of the Angelica plant. During the spring, these tender shoots are picked from the ends of Angelica tree branches and eaten as a kind of sansai.
Tara no me shoots are way too bitter to be eaten raw, so they must be boiled or at least soaked before being further cooked to get rid of their strong astringency. A popular way to enjoy tara no me is by battering it and turning it into tempura.
Fuki No Tou
Fuki No Tou are the buds of the Butterbur plant and are often called the spring messenger in Japanese. Fuki no Tou grow under the snow and are typically one of the first kinds of sansai to begin blossoming in the spring. Therefore, they literally signal the start of spring.
Fuki no tou is also commonly enjoyed as tempura, but another popular way to enjoy this sansai is to chop it up into fine pieces and stir fry it with miso.
Fuki is the long stalk of the Butterbur plant. It is pale green in color and closely resembles celery. It is naturally quite bitter in its raw state, so it is recommended to blanch or boil it before eating it. Fuki tastes delicious even if it is simply boiled and topped with Japanese seasonings like dashi, soy sauce, and mirin.
Yama udo or mountain asparagus is a heartier variety of sansai. It has edible shoots and leaves, but the outer layer of this wild vegetable is not edible. Once you reach the inner layer of yama udo, you will discover that the texture is quite crispy yet also tender. It also has a unique flavor, that is not overly bitter, almost similar to fennel or even celery.
Unlike many other kinds of sansai, yama udo does not have to be boiled before being eaten, but it is recommended to at least soak it in cool water with a splash of fresh lemon juice or vinegar before consuming.
Due to its firm texture, yama udo is typically enjoyed grilled, sauteed, or pickled. The leaves of yama udo can be added to soups or salads, or (of course) turned into tempura.
Warabi, also known as bracken is quite possibly one of the most well-known sansai among Japanese people. It is a kind of sansai that grows all over the country and is therefore not local to a particular region of Japan. It has a unique shape and texture that makes it easily recognizable.
You may be familiar with warabi if you've heard of or tried warabi mochi. For warabi mochi, warabi starch is typically used to give the mochi its unique texture. When using fresh warabi, it is common to boil it and add it to cooked rice or make namul. It is also quite common to make stir-fried warabi.
Kogomi or Ostrich fern is notorious for its appearance as its top is curved and it has a curled-up fern tip known as a fiddlehead. Kogomi is so bitter that it must be dried and then boiled before it can be consumed. Once it is prepared properly, it has a flavor similar to asparagus. A popular way to enjoy kogomi is by marinating it in a dashi-soy-based sauce before serving it.
One of the most common flowers found blooming in the spring, nanohana or flowering rapeseed often grows along mountains, open fields, and rivers. The flower buds, stalks, and leaves are all edible and the sansai itself has a flavor similar to broccoli.
Nanohana is unique in that it does not have a sharp or overly bitter taste, so it does not have to be boiled before being consumed. As it is a vegetable similar to broccoli, you can prepare it in any way that you would prepare broccoli!
Shungiku, or what is known as spring chrysanthemum has a pungent and peppery taste. This leafy green is a popular ingredient in Japanese hotpot dishes such as nabe or sukiyaki. It doesn’t take long to cook shungiku as it only needs to be blanched in boiling water or hot broth before enjoying.
Yomogi or mugwort is an herb used in both Japanese cuisine and medicine. It is usually used in wagashi or turned into tea. Usually, yomogi is boiled and pounded into a paste before being added to mochi dough to make yomogi mochi. It can also be dried and ground into a powder for tea or even wagashi. In fact, yomogi powder is commonly used for making the green dango in hanami dango.
Zenmai is another kind of fern that has a unique flavor and chewy texture. It has an overly bitter flavor when raw, so it must be boiled or at the very least soaked for several hours. Zenmai tastes delicious when it is simmered in dashi and soy sauce or stir-fried. Since it has a heartier texture, it can also be added to takikomi gohan.
Popular Japanese Sansai Dishes
The way that the sansai is prepared depends on the type, but there are many different sansai dishes that you can find and try in Japan.
Tempura is by far the most popular way to enjoy sansai. As many sansai are overly bitter and cannot be eaten raw, deep-frying them is the best way to make them taste more appealing. Since sansai are high in nutrients, enjoying them in tempura form is slightly more guilt-free!
Sansai tempura is often served alongside a bowl of soba or udon.
Heartier kinds of sansai like warabi work perfectly in takikomi gohan! Takikomi gohan means “cooked with rice” and is a Japanese mixed rice dish prepared in a rice cooker. All you need to do is soak some rice, add in your favorite seasonings, proteins, and vegetables, and then let them all cook together at the press of a button.
Nanakusa Gayu or seven-herb porridge is a popular dish enjoyed on the 7th of January in Japan. This simple porridge consists of rice with a mixture of 7 herbs added to it. The mix of 7 herbs used in nanakusa gayu is all different kinds of sansai.
Yomogi mochi is a type of Japanese wagashi made with a yomogi or mugwort-based mochi dough wrapped around a ball of red bean paste. This type of mochi is prepared with yomogi that has been steamed and turned into a paste or grounded up into a fine powder. This gives the mochi a vivid green color.
Another common way to prepare sansai is by turning them into ohitashi. Ohitashi is a Japanese method of preparing vegetables, by marinating steamed or boiled leafy vegetables in a dashi-based sauce. Since most sansai have to be boiled or steamed anyways before they can be consumed, making ohitashi out of them is a no-brainer.
Where To Enjoy Sansai In Japan?
You can enjoy dishes like the ones we previously listed containing sansai throughout Japan during spring. However, one restaurant based in Nishikawa town Yamagata prefecture has taken the sansai tasting experience to a whole new level.
This restaurant is called Dewaya, and they specialize in sansai cuisine, which is a rarity in Japan. With more than 80 years of history, Dewaya has been serving authentic Japanese dishes comprised of sansai. Not only is Dewaya a sansai cuisine restaurant, but it is also a cozy Japanese ryokan or traditional inn that you can stay at.
Dewaya offers an omakase or chef’s choice menu featuring different dishes that make sansai the star of the show. Each dish and course is prepared in a unique way using ingredients local to Yamagata. The menus are decided on what is currently in season and whatever the chef can get his hands on. Experiencing a sansai course meal is not only a uniquely Japanese experience, but it is a truly unique-to-Yamagata experience that will definitely become the highlight of your Japan trip.
Every March 31st is marked as Sansai no Hi or Sansai Day in Japan. Sansai no Hi was originally established by Dewaya, the sansai cuisine restaurant in Yamagata Prefecture. Yamagata is famous for receiving an abundance of snow during winter, so people there look forward to Sansai no Hi because they know they will be able to enjoy an abundance of spring sansai.
Sansai is also a pun in Japanese where san means 3 and sai means 31. Therefore, it is easy for Japanese people to remember this day. The purpose of Sansai no Hi is to remind people about sansai and how to enjoy them. Sansai no Hi has also been registered by the Japan Anniversary Association.
Have you tried Japanese sansai before? If not, which sansai or which dish containing sansai would you like to try? Let us know in the comments below!
Really enjoyed this article – very informative. Extremely detailed and very well written.
Great articles, very well written, quite informative and interesting !