A Vegetable Preservation Method Developed by the Japanese “Mottainai Spirit”

TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy

Dewa Sanzan's winter lasts very long. It can still be snowing even during early April. The mountain vegetables can be said to be the leading role in the Shojin cuisine that inform the arrival of spring in the mountains. Mountain vegetables in abundant quantities start springing up, and the mountain, which was barren for many months, suddenly turns into a treasure trove of ingredients. There are also many variations to the Shojin cuisine of Dewa Sanzan, including hosta montana side dish, fukinoto and fatsia sprouts tempura, vinegar miso chive, sweet pickled Japanese knotweed, roasted Japanese butterbur, Japanese udo miso salad, etc.

Wild vegetables : Kogomi (ostrich fern), 2019, From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
Wild vegetables : Udo (Japanese spikenard), 2019, From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
List of Sansai (edible wild plants), From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
However, unlike the vegetables grown in the field, those mountain ingredients cannot be eaten raw. The preparation method and seasonings used in the Shojin cuisine are quite simple so that the flavors, aroma and texture of the mountain vegetables can be enjoyed. But the ability to deliciously prepare them is the result of the wisdom of the predecessors who developed methods of removing scums, and storing them long-term. To eat wild vegetables, it takes quite time and effort for preparation.
Fukinoto, From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
Fatsia sprouts, From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
Mr. Shinkichi Ito, the head chef of Mt. Hagurosan Sanrojo Saikan, talks about the regional wisdom of eating mountain vegetables as follows. “The Shojin cuisine of Dewa Sanzan started as a means for mountain priests to survive. At first, they had no choice but to find mountain vegetations that can be eaten raw, regardless of whether they were tasty or not. That’s why at one point, they were referred to as ‘Mokujiki Shonin’ (a famous Buddha sculptor). But I think gradually, they began to have the motivation to eat it as delicious as possible, and not waste any part of it, which gave rise to the scum-removing technology. They probably increased their repertoire of dishes by trial and error, such as by processing barely-edible vegetables via salting, scum-removing, sun drying, etc.”
Salted Sansai (edible wild plants), From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
How gratitude and blessings from the mountain helped develop preservation technologies
The Mt. Hagurosan Sanrojo Saikan has a storehouse where they salt their mountain vegetables. A large amount of wild vegetables collected from spring to early summer are salted in large barrels, and they can be preserved and eaten during severe winter when food is not available. Head Chef Ito further explains that the mountain vegetable preservation technology may not have developed if the only purpose was to “survive.”
Salted Sansai (edible wild plants), From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
“This mountain abundantly grows mountain vegetables, where you can get as much as you want, more than the amount you need for that day. Mountain vegetables start producing scum and turning black on the side you picked it, which prevents you from storing it long-term in a raw state. Many may think that it can simply be resolved by picking only the amount they need for the day, but it’s actually not good for the soil if you don’t regularly pick suitable volume, which might prevent the mountain vegetables from growing the following year. It’s also a shame to have to waste all the mountain vegetables that spring up so abundantly. I believe this spirit of conservation led the development of their wisdom to turn it into a preserved food that can be eaten year-round. And without the strong patience and motivation to eat it as delicious as possible, I’m sure their scum-removing and storage technologies wouldn’t’t have developed this far. There was an old myth that a mountain vegetable called hosta montana cannot be eaten due to being poisonous. But through the courageous act of someone who ate it in the past, we are not able to provide it as a side dish to our customers. The power of human curiosity for food is quite impressive.”
Preseving Warabi (Bracken) in salt, 2019, From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
Drying Zenmai (royal fern) under sunlight, 2019, From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
They seem to have the habit of thanking the blessings from the mountain, and maximizing its usage without wasting any part of it. Their spirit of “conservation” in valuing “what is” may be related to how the predecessors left the five-storied pagoda intact, during the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism, by replacing the Buddha statue with goshintai (object believed to contain the spirit of a deity), and how a temple was transformed into Saikan.
Fatsia sprouts, From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
The spiritual practice of cooking
The most time-consuming process in making Shojin dishes is the preparation of wild vegetables. It not only takes huge amount of time and effort in salting them, but the salted mountain vegetables must be de-salted by soaking in melted snow water before it can be used for cooking. Hence, it requires time and effort to prepare the meals for the visitors. Head Chef Ito says that the act in itself may be a spiritual practice to purify ourselves.
Asa-Tsuki, From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
 “Most mountain vegetables cannot be eaten as-is right after being picked, and all require tedious preparation. For example, all surfaces of mushrooms must be cleaned, and bamboo shoots must be soaked in boiled soup, and then cooled. Japanese knot weeds are too bitter and acidic without being salted, and fiddle head ferns must be first sun dried and then soaked in water to be prepare-able. But the important principle to adopt when receiving the mountain blessings is the spirit of “not cutting corners without expecting results.” This involves throwing away any expectation that the food will turn out delicious since so much time and effort are spent on it, and simply focusing on creating something delicious. This is what it means to not expect the result. This is the daily spiritual practice that we’re able to do through our Shojin cuisine.”
How to Make Sesame Tofu, From the collection of: TSURUOKA, UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
 It’s said that an ingredient’s taste and texture become completely different depending on whether it’s eaten raw, salted or sun dried. This is why they make extra effort before cooking by changing the preservation method of each mountain vegetable to add variation to its taste and texture so that the vegetables can be eaten more delightfully. The wisdom of eating mountain vegetables is the key ingredient that links the food culture of survival, to the development of preservation foods to prevent waste, to the modern Shojin cuisine that brings hospitality to the visitors. This practice of spending time and effort can be seen in great detail in each dish, which indicates their desire for visitors to enjoy their food as much as possible.
Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Saikan Haguroyama-Sanrosho Ryokan


Photos: Misa Nakagaki
Text: Orika Uchiumi
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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