Wednesday, April 22, 2009

First-time Foraging: An Unplanned Attempt in Nuuanu Valley

Sorry for the poor photo quality. That's what you get when you rely on a cell phone, I guess.

This weekend my wife and I headed to Nuuanu Valley, just off the Pali Highway, to go hiking. The day was picture-perfect, and at 9:30 a.m. we couldn’t have picked a better time to climb the steep, rutted trails. Granted, we sweated more liquid than we knew our bodies contained, but it was worth it for the vistas we came across and also for the peace and natural splendor all around us.

A beautiful, liver fluke-infested creek at the trailhead. Kids, don't go in that water!

About ninety minutes into our hike, near the end of the trail we were on, we happened upon a patch of three wild plants that we were pretty sure could be taken home and prepared for safe consumption. 

The first was fairly easy to identify, as wild ginger seems to grow everywhere in Hawaii. Here, along the trail, ginger roots were clustered together in the open. We found them interspersed on the trail's shoulder and even in the crooks of trees. I broke off a rounded piece, and when I brought it beneath my nose I could smell its pungent sweetness. We put it in our carrying sack and took it with us.

A patch of wild ginger skirting the trail

As we started looking more carefully at the low vegetation surrounding us, my wife pointed out what she said was a mountain vegetable commonly used in Japanese dishes, which she called zenmai (). It looked familiar to me, but I couldn't give it a name. So when I got home, I looked up zenmai on Google Image Search and found that it corresponded to the fiddlehead. Fiddlehead is indeed an edible plant, though I learned that it needs to be cooked properly in order for one to avoid an upset stomach or even food poisoning.

Two young fiddlehead ferns

The other thing my wife noticed was a grouping of what she thought was wild shiso (紫蘇), or what many people in the U.S. call perilla and either make use of culinarily or treat as an invasive weed. When we tore a piece in half, a strong minty fragrance wafted into our faces.

Wild shiso (as far as we could determine)

A leaf from the shiso-looking plant that we found

Due in part to our ignorance about wild plants and in part to our fear of misidentifying something truly toxic, however, we only made off with a single piece of the wild ginger. I'll need to research the fiddlehead and wild shiso more before returning there and trying to use them in our kitchen. This is hardly a blazing start to my interest in foraging for wild foods, but hey, you've got to start somewhere, right?

Although I just received an order of books about wild food collecting by Euell Gibbons, up to now I’ve only read about two-thirds of In Search of the Blue-Eyed Scallop, which focuses on all the bounty available to shore foragers in different parts of North America. While the book has been interesting, none of its contents were of use to me as I climbed along valley trails 1600 feet above sea level.

Out of curiosity, I looked up wild ginger in Gibbons’ stalking the wild asparagus. He writes of it: "This little flower is not related to the plant which produces the ginger of commerce, but the root has a similar taste and odor" (282). I actually found it two days later at Whole Foods, where it was labeled “Thai ginger.” I guess that means it is available commercially – at least here in Hawaii – though I stupidly forgot to see how much it sold for.

One nice thing about Gibbons’ books is that after discussing a wild food he almost always includes one or more recipes for it. Under his entry for wild ginger he explains how to make it into candied ginger and also a syrup said to relieve flatulence. Not that I have a problem with flatulence, but I decided to make both recipes…

His recipes for candied wild ginger and wild ginger syrup are super easy. They have to be; otherwise I wouldn't have attempted them. And in the end, despite its unappetizing appearance, the candied ginger turned out pretty well. It was as crunchy as Japanese takuan (pickled radish) and pungent with gingery flavor, and the sweetness – absorbed by the syrup during the boiling process, and later sprinkled on top in the form of sugar – was a nice finish for it.

We also added part of the wild ginger to a dish of fried rice, but in this we found the ginger’s taste too deep and earthy for our liking.

A piece of wild ginger from the morning's hike

Here’s my take on Gibbons’ recipe for candied wild ginger:

1. Cut the ginger into 1/8-inch-thick rounds.
2. Simmer for at least an hour, or until tender.

Simmering wild ginger. Those brown rings became pronounced once the water heated up.

Without our adding anything, the wild ginger turned the water pink and gave off residue

3. For 1 cup sliced ginger, add 1 cup granulated sugar. Boil for 30 minutes.
4. Drain ginger, pouring the syrup into a glass jar and closing it tightly.

A bowl of wild ginger syrup alongside a plate of the rhizome laid out to dry

5. Dry ginger for 2 days.
6. Roll dried ginger in granulated sugar. Store in an air-tight container.

All dried out and sitting on a bed of sugar

It doesn't look like I thought it would, but it tastes good!

For more information about foraging, take a look at a fascinating and well-written blog called Fat of the Land, which I came across this weekend.

Also, Greg at SippitySup has blogged about "foraging in the wilds of the big city" here.

I'm sure there are plenty more useful foraging blogs I don't know about. If you know of any, I'd be thrilled to receive their URLs from you!

Stumble Upon Toolbar


  1. Finding that wild ginger is a treat! How cool is that. Surely you'll be using it in a bunch of recipes?

  2. What a great nature walk and how neat that you found wild ginger. The syrup and the dried ginger sound excellent!

  3. I never seen wild ginger before, what a nice way to use them for a treats.

  4. Super cool post. Loved it - you have to keep these wild food posts coming! It's interesting how the candied ginger was crunchy.

  5. Nothing beats eating straight from nature. To me, the best food is untouched and wild. Got to make sure they are edible first of course. Candied ginger is a great way of consuming the ginger you picked. Thanks for sharing this experience. Now I feel like going for a hike and looking for edible food!

  6. What great pictures! Okay, if that was taken from a phone, that is some phone. :) Beautiful!

    I don't think I've ever seen wild ginger (or the others for that matter). What a great lesson for me. And I had never even thought to make my own candied ginger. So glad to know the steps. I may try it. There is fresh ginger here all the time at the farmer's market.

  7. Wow! Wild ginger! And it's huge!

  8. Envious!!
    I make my own candied ginger from time to time, and also find it a little too pungent sometimes depending on how mature the ginger is and what variety I pick up... when it's really strong I like to blanche it a couple times before cooking it in simple syrup. It seems to take away some of the bite. I love drizzling the ginger syrup into/onto things after too! I find it helps with upset stomachs.

    As for the fern fiddleheads, be careful! There's several varieties of ferns which look really similar to each other, and not all of them are "safe". A couple safe ones you should be able to find easily in Hawaii are ostrich fern and ho'io. The fiddleheads you found looked to me to be a little too mature (tough). You may want to pick them when they are a bit smaller/tighter/closer to the ground. Make sure to wash well, then I cook them pretty much any way I'd do asparagus.

    Happy foraging!

  9. Ohhhhh!! You are lucky, lucky couple, what a vista!!! You should show Hawaii more often . So we can at least have a little taste.

  10. What a great post - I loved all the wonderful pictures that accompanied the writing, it was almost as if I was there with you, and I felt like it as I had to scroll down the page to see what happened next.

    I can only imagine how the ginger tasted and smelled. Aside from candying it, are you going to do anything else with it?

    I have a good foraging blog link somewhere that you did not mention - let me see if I can find it and I'll come back to add.

  11. ooo, i used to have candied ginger all the time as a kid! They're great for sore throats and the syrup's great for colds. Yours must be even more therapeutic as they were hand-picked from the wild! great post :)

  12. I could cry. I miss Fiji.

    I am coming to Hawaii in May (big island). I hope to have a day similar to this one GREG

  13. What an amazing day, not only for those beautiful scenes but also for the added dimension of looking for food in its absolute most natural state! The ginger looks awesome but you're still much braver than I for even the small pieces you harvested. As I commented on Greg's post, with my luck, I'm the person likely to pick a bunch of hemlock! 8-)

    The blog Organically Cooked often features recipes using wild greens picked by Maria herself in her own yard or in the surrounding areas of her home in Hania, Crete. Check out these two posts:

    Also, if you look at the column on the left, under "horta" (winter & summer greens), she has links to other posts on foraging.

    I look forward to reading more as you and your wife continue on your foraging discoveries!

  14. Even with the camera phone, the view of the valley is breathtaking! Really, great photos!

    I don't fancy raw ginger, but the candied version sure sounds delish! ;)

  15. AAAH...What a lovely trip you have made with your wife!
    Love the rceipe for the wild ginger recipe! My husband will love it!! He is a real ginger fan, he uses it in everything &it is healthy too!
    I love my ginger in sauces, tea or in marinades or wokking. But I don't like gingerbread or so,...I prefer chocolate! Doesn't very woman does?

  16. Oh how I miss Hawaii! Please show more pictures!

    When we were there, we picked fruits from trees...but I guess not quite the same as finding wild ginger. :) Candied wild ginger sounds great!

  17. Great pictures, never mind the phone camera...wild ginger...such an interesting recipe. I am sure that we would love the candied wild ginger since we love ginger.

  18. Wow! I’ve really fallen behind in my responses. I think I’ll respond to half now and half later…

    Duo Dishes: Yeah, it was actually unexpected. We had planned on finding any edibles on our walk, and then suddenly there they were! We tried using it in various recipes, but in general we weren’t used to the taste. I’m sure it will work well with other dishes we’ve yet to try it in, however.

    5 Star Foodie: We were pretty excited about the discovery, and realized that for years we’ve been blind to how much of nature’s bounty that’s always around us. And yes, the hike was one of the best we’ve taken in Hawaii!

    Elra: I agree. It was even nicer since it was unexpected!

    Gastroanthropologist: Thanks! I’ll do my best to keep the wild food posts coming. I have it in mind to scour the beaches one of these days in the hope of finding some tasty seaweed and perhaps even some shellfish!

    Mediterranean Turkish Cook: I agree that eating straight from nature is great, but, like you said, sometimes I worry about eating what’s not meant to be eaten! Spring is in the air, so now’s the perfect time for you to go hiking, keeping an eye open for wild food. If you do this, I hope you’ll post something about it!

    Lori: Well, the hiking photos were all taken from my phone. The rest were from my Nokia. :) I imagine that the fresh ginger that’s most often sold commercially could be candied in the same way. I think the taste would be sharper and sweeter than what we found and used.

    Selba: Yeah, it was pretty big. There were at least 30 individual pieces that we saw, so that’s quite a lot of ginger!

    Sweet Charity: I totally appreciate hearing from you about the ginger and fiddleheads! I’ve looked into the fiddleheads more, and you’re right: it’s best to use those that are smaller, more tightly curled, and have a papery sheath on their stalks. I was impressed that you knew about the Hawaiian varieties! I’ll be looking for these on my next outing for sure and will let you know how they turn out…if I survive. :) I take it you cook sometimes with wild foods?

    Anna: I’ll try to show more of Hawaii in my posts! I always have a hard time choosing which photos to include on my blog.

    Okay, I'll do my best later today or tomorrow to respond to all the other great comments I've gotten. Thanks, everyone!

  19. Am jealous indeed. I remember how, as kids, we thought nothing of picking mushrooms from the local fields and also would pick and eat little leaves of wild sorrel straight from the grass (though I only figured out years later that it was sorrel). I don't think I'd be half as brave about doing that now!

    I don't know if you've seen it, but Marc at NoRecipes has been doing some foraging lately too:

  20. Oysterculture: Thanks for your nice words! We used up all the wild ginger by candying it, making syrup from it, and adding it to fried rice, but next time I’m not sure what we’ll do with it. I look forward to your foraging link, and in the meantime I’ve been surfing the Net trying to find more.

    Anjelikuh: Candied ginger was a real treat for me as a kid, too, though I actually DID it eat as candy rather than for any medicinal purpose! I seem to recall that one of my grandmothers often had it on hand, but I can’t remember why.

    Greg: I hear you on your Fiji nostalgia. But at least you’ve got your Big Island trip coming up! The island, being larger and also far less crowded than Oahu, would be a forager’s dream, especially along the shores where I’m sure you’ll be able to find a lot of edibles. There’s a lot of excellent poke there, too, so you can finally give the Hawaiian version a try!

    Tangled Noodle: I must admit that I toted that piece back with a bit of trepidation. Which is probably wimpy of me, but I’d never done it before! Luckily, it didn’t turn out to be hemlock. :) And thank you so much for the Organically Cooked links! Ah, to have a yard in which I could find wild greens. It seems like a far-off dream! We’re planning an all-day hike tomorrow that will take us over mountain to shore, so hopefully we’ll end up with some new things to try. I’m going to try to bring back seaweed and hopefully some helmet sea urchins, which are truly bizarre-looking creatures.

    Bangsar-bAbE: Thanks for your compliments on my photos. I just got lucky with the first one. because I merely held the camera over my head and took it without seeing what I was shooting! Is ginger a popular ingredient in Malaysian cooking? And yes, the candied ginger is a nice, sharp, sugary nibble to have, especially with iced tea!

    Sophie: I hope you try making candied ginger husband, as I’m sure that you and your husband will enjoy it! Funny what you said about gingerbread: I don’t like it very much either, but I’ll eat ginger in anything else. And it’s not only women who love chocolate! ;)

    Sugarlens: I’ll do my best to include more Hawaii photos in future posts. :) And yes, this is a fruit-picking paradise…as long as you don’t live in an apartment in the middle of an urban area! It’s amazing how you can walk along a sidewalk in some neighborhoods, look up, and see half a dozen different kinds of fruit above you. Usually, of course, they’re about an inch or two out of reach. We keep our windows open all the time, and birds sometimes hang out in our place without our even realizing it right away. But I’d much rather find mango and litchi hanging out on our floors and chairs. I’m not going to eat the doves, but I would eat the fruit!

    Juliana: Thanks for your comment! If you love ginger, I’m sure this recipe will broaden your appreciation for it even more. It takes a while to make, but the process isn’t exactly taxing. Give it a shot!

    Daily Spud: I’m not quite brave enough to try wild mushrooms yet, but I’m eager to learn about them. It sounds like a very pleasant environment in which you grew up! And thanks very much for the link to Marc’s foraging! I see that he also cooked with stinging nettles, which I’m intensely curious about.

  21. Oh, I forgot to mention: last night, during a quick trip to Whole Foods, I saw that the wild ginger sold for $9.99/pound. That made me feel even better about finding the wild ginger on the mountain trail!

  22. I love hiking but I am really afraid of encounters with snakes. Therefore, one part of me tries to find excuses not to go in the summer. I like to go to farms for fruit picking, but I make sure there is no grass around me so I can see around me.

    Yesterday, when I was at the local grocery store, I saw fiddlehead! I had to share it because I think this is the first time I saw it; it may not have caught my attention before since I was unfamiliar with it. But thanks for sharing because now I can recognize it. I was explaning to my husband what it was and where I learned about it. I wonder how these fiddleheads are cooked. Right underneath it there was a ginger type what looked like exactly what you have in the picture. It could be wild ginger but not sure. I think they called it "Thai ....something".

  23. I envy this nature walk. We used to have this kind of trip in my childhood. We udes to live countryside, close to mountains. And we used to pick different versions of mushroom with my grandma. She knew a lot about nature. We might have been poisoned without her. I know how exciting to find veggies or edible herbs in nature and pick them with your hands. Wild ginger looks great!

  24. Wow these pictures of the scenery look amazing. I wish I was there!

  25. Quite popular, especially with the Chinese! ;)

  26. I know you may feel 'jealous' is an over used word in your comments, but I have always dreamed of being in an area where I could forage...seems some go in areas around NYC...

    I only stumble upon Italian eateries where I live :)

    As you look out into that view, please send a few thousand wondrous and beautiful vibes to my spirit...

  27. No worries! I actually used to work at a restaurant that used a lot of wild food... And to some extent I take those experiences for granted, not realizing that most people haven't eaten many things that I consider somewhat normal. As for the ferns, I actually had to check if ostrich ferns grow in Hawaii (they're pretty common most places, but I didn't want to lead you astray), and whatever website I found also mentioned the ho'io.