Saturday, March 1, 2014

6. 草木萌動, "Vegetation Sprouts, Trees Bud"

(BGM:  "The Way We're Going" by Michael Tomlinson)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
初春, Shoshun: "Early Spring"
Season No. 2: 雨水, Usui: "Rain Water" 

Perched high atop Mt. Ryou in Mihara City, overlooking the Seto Inland Sea, the Hubby and I spent the day reflecting on how we survived our first year in Hiroshima. While communing with a row of gracefully leaning moss-covered sakura trees still quiet in their final month's repose, my heart skipped a beat as the spirited whistles of the uguisu (Japanese bush warbler) broke the silence, echoing playfully across the mountain range. Spring had arrived with the gift of song!

View of Mt. Fudekake from Mt. Ryuo (Mihara, Hiroshima)
Enshrouded in the thick, billowing mists curling around the mountains, we were unable to see anything past a kilometer into the distance. The faint outline of a single island was all we could make out from so high up, so we concentrated instead on savoring the replenishing moist air filling our lungs. The coastline drive along Route 2 provided us with a slightly clearer view of the island-studded sea.

"Islands in the Mists" (Tadanoumi Town, Takehara City)
Climate No. 6: 草木萌動
Soumoku Mebae Izuru:
" Vegetation Sprouts, Trees Bud" 
(March 1-4)

"Counting them as I pass: 
   House after house, 
    The plums and willows."  
                 -Matsuo Basho

"New Life Reaching Out"

And so it begins. The mountains slowly, sensuously slip into a yellow-green dress of moist, new branches.

A willow's furry new mittens.

Willow and magnolia trees coyly flaunt supple catkin mittens as soft as rabbit fur. This is Spring's slow striptease to build excitement before the main event. Grey thrushes, varied tits and brown-eared bulbuls strike up a chorus, now that the bush warbler has finally taken his rightful place at center stage.

Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis) in Sakura Buds. (Copyright 2013, Gen, All Rights Reserved)

Taste of the Season: 山独活, Yamaudo, Japanese Spikenard (aka "Mountain Asparagus")
Yama udo!  What in Sam Hill? This is food?

It sat there lonely in the supermarket display basket, practically begging me to take it home. I knew that some of the most amazing tastes could be found in the most hideous of packages, so I wasn't going to just write this little guy off. I picked up the long, staff-like udo (Aralia cordata) and brought it close to my face. Getting a nose full of the exposed buds, they smelled faintly citrus like lemongrass with the sharp zing of pine needles. I was intrigued! My husband had seen them before in Korean supermarkets and suggested I give it a whirl. Good thing he has a sense of adventure!

I found a simple recipe online for kimpira udo. Sliding it carefully out from its plastic bag, this gnarly, tentacled thing looked less like a vegetable and more like the creepy alien hand that copped a feel of Ann Robinson in the 1953 classic War of the Worlds. Apprehension took hold of me as I saw it lying there exposed and vulnerable on my cold, stainless steel kitchen counter like a patient waiting for surgery. Did I really want to go through with this procedure?


Spikenard rots quickly after harvest, so I had to work fast. Brown slime stuck to the base of the bag and I feared an allergic reaction should it contact my sensitive skin. I quickly chopped off the bad bits and threw them into the garbage. Dissecting the stem was an easier process, revealing an appealing shimmering white, crisp flesh similar in texture to the lower stalk of a leek. I carefully slivered the udo as directed and tossed it into a bath of ice water spiked with sushi vinegar to cure it. 

As I fried them in a tiny bit of sesame oil and dried red chili, I noticed the udo slices shrinking and softening to resemble flat udon noodles. Desperate to revive them like the surgeons working on E.T., I added soy sauce, mirin, sake and sesame seeds STAT. Yet after all that cooking, my 1.5 cups of raw slivered udo had shrunk into three heaping tablespoons worth of food. My hopes deflated like a whoopie cushion. 

3 Tablespoons of Meh

Upon first bite, the greatly anticipated lemony fragrance had completely vanished, leaving behind a faint woodsy, medicinal aftertaste like that of fresh panax ginseng. And that was it! For a hard-earned 300 yen, that was it! I can't even say that it tasted "good."

So at my husband's advice, I chucked the vegetable into a bowl of rice along with a dollop of spicy hot kochujang pepper paste and a pack of bibimbap mix. Five minutes of continuous stirring and the mixed rice was good enough to cover the bland, lifeless taste of the udo.

Korean bibimbap  rice with udo.

About five chews into my meal, I suddenly felt guilty, like I'd killed it, the way Ann Robinson showed remorse (I'm guessing) when she saw the blood of the alien after Gene Barry clubbed it to death. If I'd only tried to understand it better, if I'd only reached out to feel its pain...

The udo would not forgive me, however, and I spent the next two days buckled in stomach pain from an allergic reaction to the vengeful plant. As with any toxic relationship that's more give than take, sometimes, the best thing is to just let go, and walk away. Duly noted.

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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