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.
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 (薇). 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)
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.
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.
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!