15 Apr A wild ride
It’s been a wild spring ride as far as the weather is concerned. The days are a dizzying array of rain, wind, and sun in fluctuating intensities. As soon as temperatures rise we peel off layers and throw open windows, only to close up and bundle up again just a little while later. Even the weather app on my phone can’t keep up. It tells me that there is a 100% chance of rain in Karatsu right now and yet the view from the window shows patches of blue sky above billowing clouds.
Between work schedules and oscillating weather patterns, it can be tough to get out foraging when the wild edibles are at their prime. Luckily it all came together over the weekend as we headed out to dig takenoko, bamboo shoots. I had been anticipating it all week. Saturday was my only window in a busy stretch of days. Takenoko had first been spotted just a week before so it was still in the realm of the best harvesting stretch.
We are surrounded by bamboo groves but most are thick and unruly, occupying steep embankments and housing a maze of fallen culms. So instead we drive the short distance to Ryutagama where years of harvesting has rendered the nearby grove airy and navigable. The shoots grow large and fast and soon become too fibrous to eat. If a shoot obviously presents itself to you, it’s no longer worth digging. The best ones are hard to spot, the pointy tip just crowning the surface. It behooves one to shuffle around and literally trip over them.
Strolling back to the car with out loot, we ran into Nozaki-san, the cook at Ryutagama and I’m glad we did. It’s these chance encounters that allow me to glean another tidbit of local culinary wisdom from time to time. Bamboo shoots are simmered in a large pot of water with nuca, rice husk, and togarashi pepper. Rather than remove and wash the takenoko as soon as they cool, she advised us to leave them in the lidded pot overnight, furthering the aku nuki, bitterness removal, process and naturally rendering the takenoko even sweeter.
The takenoko harvest generally coincides with our sansho trees leafing out and one of my favorite dishes this time of year is takenoko sanshoae (also known as kinome-ae). I first encountered sansho just hours after landing in Japan and my passion for it has been intense and unwavering all these years. Ki no me, the young leaves of the sansho tree, are often used as a garnish or subtle fragrant addition to light clear flavored dishes and they serves that role with style and grace. But sanshoae offers a big earthy dose of sansho pleasantly mellowed by sweet white miso and with it I can indulge my love of sansho on a grander scale. It’s the kind of dish I can eat over and over and never tire of. And with so much takenoko and so much sansho on hand in April, I’m a happy girl.
Some notes on preparing fresh takenoko
Scrub any dirt off under running water and shuck the outer several layers of skins. Trim off any nubs at the base. Cut off the very tip and make a vertical slash down one side to allow water to penetrate the shoot when simmering.
Place the takenoko in a large pot of water with a handful or two of nuca and a couple of togarashi peppers. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for about an hour with the lid slightly ajar. At the 45-50 minute mark begin checking them occasionally. When a skewer easily pierces the flesh at the base, they are done.
Turn off the heat, secure the lid and leave overnight.
The following day remove the takenoko from the pot and remove the rest of the husk layers. At this point you will want to slice the shoots in half vertically to be able to wash in the insides well. Further sectioning of the shoots will depend on how you plan to prepare them.
You can use the shoots right away or place the drained shoots in a lidded container and cover with a light dashi (I use eso dashi, but a simple konbu dashi is fine too.) Allow to soak overnight again. Soaking the shoots in dashi will give them a fuller base flavor when incorporated into other dishes and as long as the dashi is a light one, it won’t overpower the takenoko’s own fragrance and flavor. Plan to use within 2 or 3 days.
1 cup sansho leaves
You’ll need a heap of sansho sprigs for this. Remove the small leaves from the stem of the sprig, particularly at the base where it may be a bit woody, until you have amassed 1 cup of leaves.
2 tbsp nikirishu
Nikirishu is sake with the alcohol content burned off. To make your own, place a bit of sake in a small pan over high heat. Tip the pan towards the flame and the alcohol will ignite. Once the flame dies down, the bulk of the alcohol has dissipated. Allow to cool.
4 tbsp good quality smooth white miso
dash of light soy and or pinch of salt
Remove enough takenoko for 3-4 people from the dashi and drain. Remove the top 1.5 inches of the tip and section vertically into wedges. From the rest cut ½ to ¾ inch thick half-moons and then section them into 2 or 3 triangle shaped wedges. Aim for each piece to be worth about two bites in size.
Place the sansho and nikirishu in a suribachi or mortar and grind with pestle until mostly smooth. Add miso and continue mixing until smooth and incorporated. Add a splash of light soy and mix. Taste and continue seasoning with salt until it suits your palate. Dress the takenoko and serve immediately.
Sanshoae will soon oxidize. It is best made and served fresh. If you must make it ahead of time, place it in a container and press a layer of plastic wrap into the surface to prevent oxidation. Though you can preserve most of the color in this manner, the longer you wait to serve it, the faster it will oxidize once exposed to air.