Eating Wild Japan is a book about exploring relationships between culture, time, eating well, and the wild plants all around us. Winifred Bird’s fascination with her topic and her eagerness to share shine through. She is clearly passionate about foraging in general, and particularly in Japan. The author spent three years researching this book after living in Japan for nine years and it shows.
The book is divided into three parts: a collection of essays; an illustrated guide to plants and Japanese wild foods; and recipes. All three parts emphasize the culinary, cultural, and historical roles of foraged wild foods in Japan. Bird includes delightfully simple line drawings of plants and tools used for foraging in Japan.
The Japanese word sansai (山菜) means mountain vegetables, and traditionally refers to vegetables that grow naturally and are foraged in the wild rather than cultivated. Bird writes extensively on sansai, including its ecological impact, health benefits, and expression of hospitality. She dives into the history of sansai and the impact that agriculture has had on the tradition.
Japanese historically forage for bamboo shoots, chestnuts and other plants; but foraging is not limited to Japan’s mountainsides. Bird tells of the “sea folk” (primarily women) who dive deep to gather seaweed, oysters and other ocean delicacies.
She reminds the reader throughout that foraging is part of many cultures. Although the onset of an agricultural society has diminished its importance, in some cultures it has remained as a task essential for survival (most notably during times of famine) or as the source of delicacies—or both. She contemplates the dichotomy of this “paradoxical judgement,” concluding that “agriculture makes wild foods abnormal, and there are always two sides to abnormality: despicable aberrance and sought-after rarity.”
Eating Wild Japan is a rare peek at a small but engaging piece of life on Earth. Perhaps Winifred Bird, with this book, can lead an effort to carry on the tradition of preparing foraged foods as one more way to shrink our individual ecological footsteps. If nothing else, she teaches us old ideas that could become new ideas and another way to appreciate what we have and the joy of living in a smaller space. I was reminded of myself as a child, following my great-grandmother into the woods in search of sassafras leaves to be ground with a pestle into filé, an essential herb for gumbo and other dishes common to our region and heritage.
Eating Wild Japan is a charming escape, as well as a practical guide for those who choose to explore on their own.