The genus Angelica has about 80 species distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere, of which around 25 are found in Japan. Around the world various Angelica species have been used traditionally for food and medicine, notably the Europe to Himalayas species Angelica archangelica, used since ancient times in various ways and the most well-known wild edible in Norway, where we have the domesticated form Vossakvann (see my book) with filled stems:
In Japan, no less than 11 species are covered in my most comprehensive Japanese foraging book, Ikozo Hashimoto’s Edible Wild Plants Encyclopedia (in Japanese). On my study trip to Japan in late March / early April 2016, we spent a few days on the scenic Izu Peninsula, a couple of hours from Tokyo. Here we found the best known Japanese species, Angelica keiskei (ashitaba) for sale in a supermarket (picture).
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but ashitaba is endemic to the island Hachijō-jima (jima means island), one of a string of volcanic islands in the Pacific roughly 190 km south of Izu. Apart from Hachijō, ashitaba is cultivated on some of the other islands, including Izu Ōshima, Mikura-jima, Nii-jima and To-shima. It is also grown on the mainland (Honshū). Hachijo has a humid subtropical climate with very warm summers and mild winters, so it’s not surprising it didn’t overwinter in my garden and grew only slowly through the summer (more like winter in Hachijo!). It is an important plant for the local cuisine on the island where both the leaf and flower stalks, flower buds and roots are used in many types of dish from soba (buckwheat pasta), tempura, the alcoholic shōchū, as well as tea, cakes, konjac and even ice cream and is promoted for its health giving properties. In Izu oshima, it is fried in Camellia tea oil, an oil with a sweet, herbal aroma, cold-pressed from the seeds of Camellia oleifera. It is relatively strong tasting and is therefore mostly eaten in oily dishes like tempura or diluted for a milder taste. A nutrient analysis of ashitaba can be found here: http://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/shingi/gijyutu/gijyutu3/toushin/05031802/002/006.pdf
Interestingly, the variety grown on Mikura-jima is said to be the best as it is less bitter. This variety has “thick” stems, which calls to mind our own thick stemmed Vossakvann variety which is also milder tasting! Varieties on other islands are said to be distinct, having coloured stems.
The most common species we saw in southern Honshu was shiny leaved Angelica japonica (hamaudo, meaning Udo growing on the beach). Many consider it to be “poisonous” (which probably signifies that it is stronger tasting), but it certainly is used in similar ways to ashitaba and we even encountered a local foraging what was probably this species on Izu (see the film at http://www.edimentals.com/blog/?p=9672).
More information can be found in the captions below, which includes pictures of other Angelica species seen in botanical gardens in Kyoto and Tokyo and even ashitaba being grown as a house plant in the mountains near Nagano. My friend Andrew McMilllion in Southern Norway has discovered this wonderful plant and is growing it indoors (in flower as I write this in mid-January).
Thanks to Tei Kobayashi for showing me around on the visit to Nagano and Ken Minatoya-Yasuda for translating some of the text in my foraging book!