BookShelf: “Eating Wild Japan: Tracking the Culture of Foraged Foods, With a Guide to Plants and Recipes”
By Winifred Bird
Illustrated by Paul Poynter
Stone Bridge Press, $18.95
Reviewed by Melody Kemp
I read this as a love story.
OK, so it’s light on swooning and caressing. But it's heavier on the aspects of romance that really count: appreciation, respect and curiosity.
“Eating Wild Japan: Tracking the Culture of Foraged Foods, With a Guide to Plants and Recipes” is a gentle overview of author Winifred Bird’s love and appreciation of Japanese food, of the culture it rests upon, the elders who are happy to share knowledge, the intimacy with nature and — of course — the food itself.
The catch is that the stuff that has so captured Bird’s attention is nearly all wild, or — in some cases — cultivated from a once-wild source.
In this era of food fastidiousness and hermetically sealed everything, Bird’s quiet meditation on exploring extant forests and habitats for edible plants comes as a reassuring sigh. It defies the now almost-neurotic drive for food hygiene, which results in needing a bandsaw to get into a packet of cheese.
The joy of foraging
I was delighted to have been given this book to review as I am a forager and cook, and have lived in Asia for about 30 years.
I pick edible flowers to top an alcohol-based jelly, rummage clumps of wild herbs to add to dinner, collect mushrooms and chestnuts from Spanish parks, and fruit from overhanging limbs.
A canal trip in France had me leaping ashore to grab wild rosemary, cherries and edible fungi.
The tastes Bird encountered and writes about are largely unfamiliar to Western diets. In Japan and other parts of Asia, fetid, brittle, acidic and bitter are a significant part of the diet or background taste. Exploring those variations is an adventure in itself.
Bird lived in rural Japan for a decade or so, writing, growing organic rice and vegetables, and absorbing a second culture. She returned to the United States in 2014. During her time in Japan, she achieved language proficiency to a level that enables her to add “professional translation” to her resume.
Her mastery of the language enabled a
deeper understanding of wild food capture,
cooking style and the historical context
in which the food came to light.
This fluency and ease with the language and society is ingrained in the book, like cloisonné. She is as comfortable with identifying the botanical species and offering recipes as she is with describing her hosts. Her mastery of the language enabled a deeper understanding of wild food capture, cooking style and the historical context in which the food came to light.
As the book reveals, Bird traveled widely, taking the reader on a tour of wild food centers, including the ancestral domain of the Ainu, the indigenous people of the North.
I was also intrigued by her take on the politics of food culture. But more on that later.
When compared to the huge harvesters of the Western world, the simple tools of Asian agriculture are the epitome of form following function.
Made of natural materials, in particular bamboo, the tools stand as an ode to Japan, its design skill and conservatism. In keeping with Japan’s complex simplicity, the book includes simple line drawings portraying the forest farmers and the tools they used.
Bird also includes recipes for many of the foods eaten. But even in the parts of Asia where I have lived, most of the ingredients would be hard to find.
Normally, Asian food is often cooked in haste. The wok is representative of this style. Thrown onto high heat, food is cooked quickly. Wild food, on the other hand, takes greater preparation and cooking, usually to mediate toxicity or strength of taste.
“Eating Wild Japan” is also beautifully written, light, intimate and — at times — funny.
Bird offers her own delight at finding the very top of a live bamboo shoot on a hillside and the satisfaction of being able to tear it from the ground, just as I love to harvest my own figs, herbs and cavalo nero.
One delight supermarkets can never offer is the sheer joy of finding just the right mushroom.
What big-scale farming has wrought
But times are changing. Westerners may be familiar with wakame, the slippery seaweed that accompanies sashimi and inevitably gets stuck between your teeth.
What used to be foraged food is now actively farmed. Bird’s concern about its commercial transition is where she slips out of her cooking cape and puts on her environmental journalist helmet.
In the years I spent in Asia, I saw millions of hectares of land cleared for farming, devastating complex ecologies and biomes. Few realize, for instance, that the famous Indonesian island of Bali had many hundreds — perhaps more — of highly specialized types of rice, each micro-adapted for its conditions and carefully bred by farmers over the centuries.
The Green Revolution reduced that number to ... well, who really knows?
Most development officials seem to think that Asia equals rice, ignoring the complexities of foraged food and forest farming, or simply the act of farming enough for one’s family. Profits are the marker of success, not environmental integrity.
In the 16 years that I lived in Laos, I saw this contribute to the possible extinction of an upland ethnic group, the Mlabri. Their name means people of the forest, distinguishing them from animals of the forest.
In 2016, I was told that only 30 still existed in Laos. The rest had been domesticated in a church-run workshop in Thailand. Now, they make hammocks for sale. I was told by a whispering doctor that Mlabri land had been passed to China-based developers.
This is also a complete book. Bird has included a comprehensive list of plant names and methods of preparation. Her knowledge is both wide and deep.
I encourage anyone interested in food culture, in Asian matters and — in particular — traditional food culture to read this book. Simple curiosity is a great entrée, and enchants the main course.
But it’s the love that keeps you reading.
Melody Kemp is a longtime SEJ member and a freelancer currently located in Australia.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 16. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.