Tama Matsuoka Wong is a lawyer turned professional forager who is working to get people to think differently about plants that are often dismissed, or denigrated, as weeds. Rather than focus on the bounty that home gardeners traditionally celebrate, she spoke about foraging for wild plants at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See her talk on YouTube at the end of this story.)
Wong said her interest in this abundant source of nutritious and delicious ingredients began with a failed attempt at gardening, which she tried after moving back to New Jersey following several years in Hong Kong. “Gardening was a lot harder than I remembered it,” she said. “There are a lot of rules.”
Instead, she began learning about native plants, including many varieties that the average homeowner regards as intruders. The turning point came, Wong said, when a visitor from Japan told her that the plant known here as knotweed, considered an invasive species because it can damage building foundations, is viewed as a delicacy in Japan, where it’s known as itadori.
“That was the moment,” Wong said. “The weeds I was trying to battle are great food. Why is it that all this great food is around us and we don’t recognize it?”
In addition to being plentiful, wild plants are nutrient and flavor dense. “They haven’t been bred for shelf life or yield,” she said.
Wong began to research which wild plants are not just edible but delicious, a category that for her includes daylilies, chickweed, wild cress, wild garlic and creeping jenny. She began working with chefs interested in foraging to develop recipes, and today works with such heavy hitters as Eddy Leroux, head chef de cuisine at Restaurant Daniel, and Mads Refslund of ACME. She and Leroux teamed up on a cookbook, “Foraged Flavor,” which includes recipes as well as tips on finding and identifying edible wild plants.
Wong’s business, Meadows and More, provides foraging workshops. Her latest project is a wild sumac farm, which she successfully funded on Kickstarter earlier this year. She is planting 500-plus wild sumac trees on about an acre of unusable farmland preserved and owned by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Sumac is used to make za’atar, an increasingly popular spice traditionally used in Middle Eastern cooking.
In Wong’s words, “the wild farm crop will exist not only as part of a natural landscape that supports the health of the soil, water, air, pollinators and larger community but also actively restores it, without the need for irrigation, fertilizer, tillage or pesticides.”
Foraging tips to live by
Wong has several tips for anyone interested in foraging for wild plants, some of which she shared recently on NPR’s “Science Friday”:
— It’s critical to identify plants properly. Meadows and More offers help on its website, including a seasonal foraging calendar with helpful photos, and a plant identification forum where users can post photos of plants and have them identified by a botanist.
— Make sure you’re not picking in a place with heavy industrial use, which can contaminate the soil and water and, ultimately, the plants.
— Get permission from whoever owns the land on which you plan to forage. Not only is it more polite, but you’ll also be able to find out if there is any risk from pollution or pesticide use.
— Be environmentally responsible. Some native plants are very connected with the local ecology, and over-harvesting can lead to problems. For example, there is concern that ramps are suffering from their popularity, with an estimated 2 million ramps now being harvested annually. If you want to harvest ramps, Wong recommends clipping the top of the plant and leaving the root so it can regenerate.
More from Zester Daily:
— Some wild plants are “garden worthy.” You can plant them, as Wong is doing with the wild sumac farm.
Those looking for recipes for foraged plants have several resources in addition to Wong’s cookbook. There are recipes on the Meadows and More website, and Wong has contributed recipes to Serious Eats and Food52.
Wong firmly believes that wild plants will become a more important part of how we eat. “Weeds are the ultimate opportunistic, sustainable plants all over the world,” she said. “I don’t think we can top Mother Nature.”
In addition, Wong said, foraging for wild plants has benefits that go beyond the kitchen. Looking for plants in a meadow or in the woods, “you will notice things that are beautiful that you never noticed before,” she said. “We spend our lives chasing after fulfillment, and we can find it literally under our feet.”
Main photo: Japanese knotweed. Credit: maljalen / iStockphoto
This piece was written by Pam Weisz, deputy director of Change Food.