Spring Food To Look Forward To
Here's a look at what to get excited for in the coming weeks and months as spring sets in and local produce starts to pop up more and more!
Before the snows fully melt, farmers are busy planting indoors, in greenhouses, and rushing to get their fields ready for the growing season.
It isn't just the farmers who are moving! In valleys, along streams, and up in the mountains plant life starts to stir. Plants bursts back into life the moment the snows start to retreat and the moment they do, a whole range of early season foods start to fill local green grocers and larger supermarkets.
Along the coasts, fishermen rejoice in the warming temperatures and cast their nets for seasonal fish and delicacies.
Sansai - Spring Mountain Vegetables
Many sansai or mountain vegetables can be picked or found in produce markets and supermarkets year-round, pickled or preserved, but in spring you can often find them in baskets, freshly harvested by locals from Niseko's bountiful wilderness. Picking mountain vegetables is a weekend activity that many Hokkaido residents enjoy engaging in. It is more popular with older generations, but there is enthusiasm among many youth as well. It is an activity that many get into at a young age, going out into the mountains with grandma or grandpa in search of some spring veggies!
While some of them can be tricky to find and to cook if you haven't done it before, you can often skip the hassle as you will find many restaurants in the Niseko area serving seasonal vegetables picked personally by restaurant staff or by local vegetable seekers.
Here are a few of the many mountain vegetables which you might encounter this spring in Niseko:
Fuki - Giant Butterbur
Fuki or giant butterbur is also known as bog rhubarb and is found in Europe as well as Japan. This is one of the easiest mountain vegetables to find as it grows just about anywhere it can! You will find Fuki sprouting up along roads within days of the snow melting away. By the time summer rolls around, they will have shot up enormously and their big fan-like leaves look very much like rhubarb although their stems remain green.
Fuki has a bitter taste when not prepared properly, but is sometimes diced and cooked up in stir-fries and can be cooked up as tempura as well.
Warabi - Fiddleheads
Warabi (Bracken or fiddleheads) are a common mountain vegetable which you can find in supermarkets most supermarkets. You can often find them packaged year-round, but can purchase freshly picked warabi during mid-to-late spring. Full of flavour, fiddleheads are great in stir-fries and as a side dish as well. They can be a bit tricky to cook up and if you aren't certain how to cook them, it is probably best to look it up as you can upset your stomach (bracken poisoning) if they are prepared incorrectly.
Takenoko - Bamboo Shoots
With a crisp texture and sweet taste, takenoko or bamboo shoots are a popular item for those who go out hunting for mountain vegetables. Young shoots are considered the most desirable, but older shoots can be cooked up as well. These are another item that you will be able to find year round, but will see greater volumes of freshly pickled jars of takenoko lining the shelves when late spring rolls around.
Takenoko is often cooked and served in soup and you will see them as a garnish on ramen in many restaurants as well. Bamboo shoots are versatile and can be cooked up in a number of different dishes from stir-fries to tempura, too.
Yachibuki - Marsh Merigold
Yachibuki or marsh marigolds are early springtime bloomers. They start to grow along river banks with the right conditions in early spring as the snow melts away. They can be harvested either before or after they flower, you want to get them when their leaves are big and leafy; they resemble spinach leaves quite a bit.
They are not a plant that many in the western world would think to eat, but they can be quite delicious when cooked up well! When prepared, the stems and leaves have a flavour that is similar to spinach. They are a great spring side dish and can be used in salads too!
Udo - Mountain Asparagus
Udo or mountain asparagus is another popular find for mountain vegetable hunters. This is another one that will start to crop up early-to-mid spring. Like many mountain vegetables, preparation and cooking udo can be a bit challenging. You will often find udo in soups, salads, and side dishes.
In addition to the many wild mountain vegetables that will start to find their way into restaurants with seasonal menus, there are a few spring season crops that will be stocking shelves across Niseko as the snows melt and spring gets under way.
While there aren't quite as many farm-grown spring crops as there are varieties of mountain vegetables to hunt for, the volume at which the spring crops are produced vastly outweighs that of the mountain vegetables.
Here are a few of the big spring crops to keep an eye out for:
Winter cabbage are a Hokkaido specialty that are incredibly popular during the spring. The cabbage heads are harvested in the fall and left in the fields over winter. There are a number of farmers in the Niseko area that produce winter cabbage and in the fall you can see the cabbage heads lined up in the field as the first snows start to fall.
There are two types of the winter cabbage, one which is sold during the midst of winter and the second which is sold during the end of winter and early spring. Left under the heavy Hokkaido snow, the cabbages sweeten during the cold winter months. Cabbage is a common ingredient in a number of different types of Japanese dishes. You will find cabbage served as a side, in salads, and used in dishes like okonomiyaki (savoury Japanese pancakes), as well.
Winter carrots are grown in Makkari town and Kyogoku town. While the main carrot harvest is in late autumn, they can be left in the ground over winter and harvested in the spring as well. Hokkaido's climate is perfect for carrots, which grow better in the cooler temperatures. As such, Hokkaido carrots are well regarded across Japan as being sweet and full of flavour. Winter carrots that are harvested in the early spring are considered to be even sweeter than the already sweet autumn-harvested variant.
Keep an eye out for carrots in side dishes and salads!
Asparagus is without a doubt the number one crop that heralds spring and the start of summer. It's harvest time is just on the cusp between spring and summer and to a lot of people it signals the start of the BBQ season! Local asparagus will start to pop up on shelves towards the end of spring and carry into early summer as well. Fresh asparagus is an absolute treat and can be cooked up in all kinds of different ways. You will often find local asparagus served at restaurants across Niseko as tempura or wrapped in bacon on a skewer and in a range of other different forms as well.
Uni - Sea Urchins
Among seasonal seafoods, uni or sea urchin might be the most exciting to look forward to. Fresh sea urchin from Iwanai town will be caught, prepared, and served that day at sushi and seafood restaurants along the coast and throughout the Niseko area. Some of the freshest uni come from the Sea of Japan coast, and Iwanai town is one of the bigger suppliers.
Uni come into season in May and great as sushi or served over rice! While sea urchin might be among the more strange looking types of seafood you will come across here in Japan it is definitely worth a try. There is a big difference in flavour between fresh spring uni and that caught at other times of year or stored over time. It is always best to eat it as fresh as possible as it will be sweet and smooth.
There are plenty more seasonal foods that pop up across Hokkaido and in the Niseko area on plates at restaurants like the kegani or horsehair crab from the Sea of Okhotsk. Spring is an exciting time as those who enjoy a good meal or consider themselves a gourmet. There are a lot of fresh and young crops that only grace tables during this time of year so if you are in Niseko during the springtime, make sure you bring your appetite!