Last spring I was shooting envy spears at everyone harvesting wild greens and herbs all over the planet. This year I get to join in the hunt since we’ve already identified 2 wild things growing right in our neighborhood. One is something I grew up with and knew well; the other I was introduced to last year while reading about everyone else’s fun in the wilds. First up is a familiar and long-missed favorite: Mugwort. Another time we’ll look at: Spruce Tips.
What we’re still hunting: Wild leeks, aka Ramps, aka Bärlauch. Does anyone have any leads on where we might find some???… Anyone??…
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris, right side of above illustration) grows to be a tall shrub, and is a member of the chrysanthemum family. You get a hint of that relation from a close look at its leaves, which do look like the edible chrysanthemum leaves known as shingiku (Chrysanthemum coronarium). The mugwort featured in this article is common in Europe and North America, and is closely related to 2 varieties that enjoy much more fame and notoriety — the Japanese mugwort (Artemisia princeps), also known as Yomogi (click for photo); and Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium, left side of above illustration).
Yomogi is widely used in Japan and other Asian countries as an herb to flavor rice cakes, porridges, cookies, and as a vegetable in soups and stir-fries. And in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the fuzz on the underside of the leaves is collected and used in heat treatments along acupuncture points, a process called moxibustion. Wormwood, as hinted in its Latin name, is the key ingredient in the infamous liqueur known as Absinthe. More on these at another time.
The common mugwort is not what the Japanese would recognize as Yomogi — its Japanese cousin has smaller leaves, more lobe-shaped than pointed. But for the purposes of this article I will use the Japanese name because that is what I know it as, and I will use it in the same ways its Asian cousin is used in Japan, namely as an herb for flavoring.
At this time of year, yomogi is quite prolific here, as it is in Europe. In both continents it is most often viewed as a weed — even a noxious weed since it is quite invasive once established. But yomogi also enjoys a long history of medicinal (both to ease digestive ailments and to purge parasites) and ritual (to keep evil spirits away) use. In Germany (where it is known as Beifuss), we found it most often in wooded areas and near river banks; and here (eastern U.S.) the wooded park near our home is nearly overrun by patches of it along most of the footpaths and open fields. While still young, the strong bitter flavor that is most prized in yomogi has not fully developed, and the flavor is still very fresh, and almost minty tasting, with only a hint of the bitterness that will develop with sun and time.
Yomogi and its cousins are immediately recognizable by the silvery, slightly fuzzy undersides of their leaves, and their distinctive aroma when the leaves are bruised. Even when I’m not “harvesting” yomogi per se, I will snap a few stems if I pass a shrub, keeping them in my pocket and gently crushing the leaves for a whiff when I’m starting to feel tired or when I’m on public transit.
Last weekend I took a basket to harvest a small batch of American yomogi from the park. Of course, when harvesting near a footpath or well-travelled path, go as far from the path as you can! Getting away from the path may keep you away from areas visited by pooches making their rounds, but there are other wild animals that don’t necessarily follow the path so you still want to wash your harvest well. I normally wash store-bought produce in a vinegar wash and 2-3 rinses, but for these I did 2 vinegar rinses and 2 fresh water rinses. (BTW, rinses after the vinegar wash are recycled to water the outdoor plants or to flush toilets — conservation tips I learned from living through the California drought in the 1980s.)
Once the yomogi was washed and dried, I made something I’ve been craving a very long time: Okayu. Okayu is simply a rice porridge, but my mother always made it with yomogi, so in my mind okayu must be scented with fresh yomogi leaves. Okayu was something my mom made for us when we weren’t feeling well, or when our stomachs were out of sorts, such as arriving home after a long plane ride (10 hours from the West Coast to Guam via Japan or Hawaii, for instance).
Strangely, we never did find fresh yomogi, either in markets or as a potted herb, while we were in Hawaii. With the large Japanese, Korean and Chinese populations (all which use yomogi in some way), I thought it would be easy to find in the Islands. Nope. So this was the first real okayu I’ve had since we lived in Germany. It was so-o-o good. Especially after being sick for most of March and April (and just getting another diagnosis of yet another infection this week).
Now that I have a ready supply of yomogi, I know there will be a lot of okayu in the near future. But I’m also going to try for the first time to make my own Kusamochi since fresh Japanese pastries are no longer a retail option, and yomogi pasta for the summer. I hope you will join me for those adventures, too!
Serves 4 persons (or 2 greedy people)
3/4 cup medium grain rice
1/4 cup short-grain glutinous rice
7 cups of water (or half broth, half water)
1 slice fresh ginger
3 handfuls cleaned and dried yomogi leaves
Wash rices separately by gently rubbing grains in water until milky, then draining. Rinse repeatedly until water runs clear. Set aside.
Bring water and ginger to boil over high heat in a large 3 qt/L saucepan. Stir in washed rices and bring back to a boil. When boiling, turn heat down to medium high and cook with cover slightly ajar over pot to allow some steam to escape, but keep the mixture at a slow boil. Cook for about 40-45 minutes or until mixture has thickened but is still soupy, stirring occasionally to keep rice from sticking.
Just before adding to porridge, roughly chop yomogi leaves and immediately add them to the pot. (Don’t cut leaves too early or the volatile oils and their glorious aroma will be lost by the time the leaves are added to the porridge.) Stir leaves through, cover and cook another 8-10 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 10 minutes.
Serve in deep soup bowl, with side of Umeboshi, Japanese pickled plum.