Sansai, Mushrooms, and Seaweeds


Assortment of sansai

Sansai (literally ‘mountain vegetables’), is the name given to wild edible plants in Japan. They are generally thought to have health benefits, and tend to have a characteristically bitter taste. They’re popular for use in ‘washoku’ (Japanese cuisine) for this reason. Their availability would heavily depend on the season and they would be foraged whenever possible, though nowadays many types have been successfully cultivated on farms as well. The same is equally true for various types of mushrooms and seaweeds.


Seasonal foraging

Tsukushi (field horsetail)

Spring sees a lot of these ‘vegetables’ ready for harvest, including: 

  • ‘Tsukushi’ (Field Horsetail): cooked or glazed and used as side dish or rice topping
  • ‘Udo’ (Japanese mountain asparagus): somewhat similar in appearance to white asparagus, and is often sauteed, pickled or marinated
  • ‘Takenoko’ (baby bamboo shoots): often cooked and eaten with rice

Other popular ways of cooking sansai include pickled or marinated in miso or deep-frying them in tempura batter. 

Autumn is generally the best time for mushrooms, the most prized variety of which is the fairly rare ‘matsutake’ (‘pine mushroom’). These are often eaten grilled or steamed with rice. Other popular types include the enoki, eringi, maitake, bunashimeji, and the well-known shiitake mushrooms.

Matsutake mushrooms on rice

Seaweeds

As an island country, seaweed has long since been a part of the Japanese diet. These sea-grown treats are rich in minerals and fiber, and are very commonly used in all kinds of dishes. Some of the favorites are:

  • ‘Nori’: used for wrapping sushi or as garnish
  • ‘Kombu’: most often used to make stock
  • ‘Wakame’: ingredient in miso soup or salad, or eaten as a side dish

Wakame drying

Sansai, mushrooms and seaweeds are very popular for use in the Japanese cuisine for their seasonality, rich flavors, and (supposed) health benefits. They are also commonly used in ‘shojin ryori’, the strictly vegetarian buddhist cuisine. Though many of us outside of Japan will have tried some types of seaweed and mushrooms, sansai are much harder to find. So make sure to discover your favorites when visiting Japan!

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