Summer Flavors: Thinking about Global Foraging and Eating from your Backyard
Foraging in Action with my permaculture friend Truman
Traveling from Philadelphia to New Hampshire is on par with traveling to a different country. The entire population of Philadelphia is larger than that of New Hampshire’s (1.5 million vs. 1.3 million). While the rustic, country stores and charming fields of small farms sometimes make me want to pull out the hair of my urban-loving head, I have to remind myself that the world could benefit from more of this slow, essentialist living.
I usually return to New Hampshire for summer and I can’t help but be drawn into nature. That’s practically all New Hampshire is, more than 75% of it. New Hampshire is covered by undisturbed forest. This past June, when I padded my way through the moist mossy ground of the seacoast’s swamps I was both awed and disheartened by how unfamiliar I was with the local trees, plants, and fungi around me. I felt inexplicably superficial as I said “What a beautiful day,” without having an understanding of the intricacies of the flora and fauna making the area so lovely. On days like this, when my stomach started to grumble and images of supermarkets and stainless steel silverware came into my head I felt abashedly ignorant for being unable to provide for myself. I’m a domesticated animal, and nothing, not even the paleolithic diet, could bring me back to my roots. Except maybe for time spent learning how to forage.
Foraging means to search for food or provisions in a wild environment. Rene Redzepi, head chef of the Michelin two-star restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, calls foraging “rediscovery” and a way for us to enhance creativity in the kitchen. As someone whose restaurant was voted as the best in the world in 2014, it’d be smart to listen to him. He is an influencer among high end chefs and a driver of the farm-to-table movement.While eating foraged food is exotic to some, reliance on nature for nourishment hasn’t disappeared in many parts of the world. One central aspect of foraging is how each area is unique and holds different vegetation. Within this blog, I’ll address different foraging practices around the world and what makes each one special and essential to cherish.
Mushroom Foraging and Russia
Through August to early September, mushroom hunting becomes a favorite pastime for many in Russia. Mushrooms can be expensive in supermarkets throughout the country and many would rather forage for their own fungi. Luckily, some were brought up in a society where grandparents and parents instilled the hobby into their children. An article by the Washington Post claimed that mushroom hunting might be “Russia’s baseball” and the New York Times published an article called “If You Are Normal in Russia, You Search for Mushrooms”. Mothers in Russia put their children to bed with a nursery rhyme about mushrooms and when learning the English alphabet, they learn g is for gryby, the Russian word for mushroom. Anna Karenina, one of the most famous novels by a Russian author, references mushrooms and by the time children are around eight years old, they can fill a full basket themselves (source: https://www.csmonitor.com/1995/1228/28141.html). I am shocked that the Russian love for mushrooms is unknown to fellow Americans and I–more so than the stereotype of babushka dolls and vodka, maybe we should associate Russians with mushrooms. Mushrooms are always served cooked in Russia, unlike in the United States where they’re a typical topping on salads. Famous Russian dishes such as mushroom julienne, stroganoff, and blini with mushrooms, are all testament to the savory potential of a skillfully baked mushroom.
Sansai and Japan
Japan is another country with strong roots in foraging. Sansai, 山菜, with the characters for mountain and vegetable, means just that. These are root vegetables and leafy greens that naturally grow in the high elevations of Japan where it is difficult to plant large farms due to lack of space and mountainous terrain. Sansai create a seasonality to Japanese cuisine, with dishes changing according to the season. Eating with the season cuts down on transportation expenses, but it is also healthiest for our bodies as we adapt to the weather. After the fire bombings of Tokyo with little else to turn to, sansai such as tender shoots, fiddlehead ferns, or Japanese Angelica were gathered and hungrily consumed.
On the island of Okinawa, islanders would shout “Imo” as a greeting meaning “Did you have your potato today?” referring to the Okinawan sweet potato, a valuable sansai in the area. A diet relying on sansai created a nation with one of the highest life expectancies in the world as Japanese women live up to an average of 84 years old. Today, agritourism centered around sansai foraging is allowing for travel to remote and practically deserted areas of the country where tourists pick sansai and other vegetables. Restaurants also self-promote by celebrating the seasonality and deliciousness of sansai in their dishes. Sansai can be boiled, fried and even tempura-ed in today’s society. As someone who studies food culture and has a deep love for Japanese culture, the varieties of dishes that pop up as the seasons change is exciting to learn about. I sometimes indulge in the shows “Trails to Tsukiji” and “Oishi Tokyo” which follow the journeys of quintessential ingredients. Check out their episode about sansai.
Wild Foraging in China
Isn’t the range of ingredients in Chinese supermarkets intimidating? I was so overwhelmed I took a friend from China to grocery shop with me and it became a lengthy research assignment. Among the information I learned, one is that traditionally, China has a rich culture of utilizing natural remedies from plants to treat illness. This information is hard to transfer to the Western world due to not only criticism of Chinese medicine, but also because it has not been comprehensively documented. However, in the Qinling Mountains specifically Mount Taibai, some communities are not only documenting their wild plants, they are also growing their own food and hosting tourists to hike and pick medicinal herbs and wild vegetables. It is a popular agritourism farm system known as nongjale. Foraging brings people together, including bittersweet memories of meals signifying shared hardship such as shenxiandoufu (fairy tofu) and famine bread made from the bark of trees. These dishes helped many Chinese to survive during times of famine. This study of the communities in the Qinling Mountains is one of the largest, in-depth ethnobotanical research studies. Researchers found that about 167 plant species were identified as “collected and eaten” or “used for medicine” in the Qinling communities, making China one of the best examples of an herbophilous country. Due to the diversity of China’s climate and topography, China might be the winner of the foraging practices and traditions. But who would have known since this kind of conversation is absent from modern paradigms and family dinner conversations.
For those convinced that foraging sounds fun, but are let down by the concrete sprawl they reside in, there are attempts being made to incorporate foraging into American society through food forests. True foragers might laugh at this concept because where there is a forest, there’s food, but to Americans who did not grow up with any of these ancient traditions we need our food to be squished into one spot. Nevertheless, some are trying to meld this ingenious concept within our busy lives in urban centers. In reality, we need both urban centers and nature reserves. Hopefully the latter doesn’t disappear at the expense of the other. Some of these food forests include Beacon Food Forest and Seattle Food Forest. There is also the incredible website Falling Fruit that provides an interactive map for those in cities who have found crevices of foragable vegetation peeking through concrete paving. Resources exist for those interested in learning about the natural environment when surrounded by nothing but built structures.
The Beginnings of Seattle’s Beacon Hill Food Forest, the largest in the nation
Questions about the sustainability of the forests and whether people will respect picking rules of the gardens arise, but for now plans are set for these little oases to grow in the urban sphere.
You might ask why we should preserve the practice of foraging. The list is expansive: Supermarkets and convenience stores are a privilege that many do not have. Planting farms and orchards requires intensive work and time. Some groups might only be knowledgeable in growing certain crops such as rice, potatoes, corn which are durable, hearty foods but lack nutrients for optimal nutrition. Foraging thus creates variety for human diets that require various amounts of nutrients to meet our complex needs for macro and micronutrients. For example, many of the wild edible plants are high in vitamin C and phytochemicals (a natural detoxifier). Therefore, foraging can act as a supplement. It can also protect from famine, as is the case for Japan and China. For other societies, being knowledgeable about the local vegetation can protect from famine if yields for that year are not as expected. Foraging also can be an escape from the stresses of life.There are examples in literature about how when one is frustrated, sad, lonely, or embracing a new encounter, they will go foraging. It is both a means for socialization and for sustenance. The study of ethnobotany combines all of these distinct ideas.
Besides reading this blog, I find the most efficient way to catch the foraging itch is to spend time with a forager. I didn’t know that my childhood friend, Truman Cavallaro, was destined to be a forager when I met him back in 2005. He was using glass jars as cups, garden picked vegetables in home cooked pasta meals, and minimalist footwear before it was considered cool. We were fourth graders and new friends, but I was always confused why Truman’s family liked to sip lemonade from various shaped jars and why they insisted on raising their own chickens and selling eggs at farmers’ markets when they had multiple vehicles and plenty of money to shop at the grocery store like “normal” people. Little did I know that resorting to this self sufficiency was not made out of necessity. It’s what more people should be doing, especially considering that we lived in Rye, New Hampshire, a town with luscious forest and plenty of space for gardening and sustainable living practices. Naively, I continued to frown at the perplexing behavior of my friend. I never saw the value of gardening, learning how to survive in nature, or living with a minimal carbon footprint until the 2010’s.
Truman was always ahead of the times and I want to commend him for that now. From being the first to give up social media to the first to sell his foraged mushrooms to the farm to table restaurants in our hometown. This summer Truman taught me that I am able to eat flowers and he showed me that eating cattails, freshly picked mushrooms, dandelion root in tea, using birch tree for paper, was not backwards or behind the times—it was practical, healthy for the earth and for me, but also aesthetically pleasing and wholesome. Take a look at the gift he gave me—a tea for indigestion.
If Truman was able to convert my skyscraping, urban hiking behind into a thinker with goals to grow an orchard and become a mushroom aficionado, then I believe others should also try to join them in their quest for natural traditions and creativity in the kitchen by cooking with ingredients that are edible, but unfamiliar. It is only when we go out of this comfort zone that we truly grow.
If I have not convinced you yet, think of foraging as a little bit of physical exercise, a way to sweat and rummage up a sustainable post workout meal. I would definitely sweat with this. (Caption: Kirk Lombard Foraging for Clams)
Thank you for reading.