Foraging, the art of scavenging for food ingredients, is advocated by chefs who have made waves in the culinary world. One of them is Rene Redzepi whose restaurant, Noma in Copenhagen, has been voted the best restaurant in the world for two years now. Another is Matt Lightner, chef and owner of Castagna Restaurant in Portland, Oregon.
You can read about how they forage for their mushrooms, ferns, flowers and wild plants in the forests or fields near their restaurants that provide the flavors and the air of the exotic in their dishes.
As far as food trends go, foraging is a step up to organic farming.
One thing I learned from reading about them is there is no such thing as “fiddlehead fern,” the supposed English translation of pako (Diplazium esculentum). This is according to Lars Norgren, Lightner’s foraging guide who knows about wild plants.
Norgren said every fern has a fiddlehead; it appears during that stage when it begins a new sprout, like kamote or sayote tops.
The shape of that pako sprout looks like the end of a violin stem, hence the name, but it looks like a bishop’s mitre to me.
Pottery artist Ugo Bigyan gives his pako salad color by adding electric-blue ternate flowers that aren’t exactly foraged but merely picked from a vine creeping at his fence.
But it isn’t really foraging that makes for the great food at Noma and Castagna. It’s what Redzepi and Lightner make of those ingredients. And the two trained with the best, the likes of Thomas Keller of French Laundry, Ferran Adria of El Bulli and Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz.
My earliest foraging experience will never fill up one dish. Going through the garden that I thought then was quite expansive, I picked santan flowers and took out the pistils (or so I thought) and sucked the end that had a small amount of sweetish liquid. Then it was off to another flower that looked like little red hearts and which also had a sweetish creamy liquid.
I don’t remember who told my siblings and me that those were safe. Those kept us occupied and thrilled about the unconventional snack we were having.
The next time was just looking rather than gathering. The book, “Ooops, Don’t Throw Those Weeds Away” (by Lichauco, Florento, Dorela, Tarriela), made me look at what I was stepping on. Ooops, there was pancit-pancitan (Peperomia pellucida) and takip-kohol (Centella cordifolia). I could have gathered them, used the book for the recipes.
But unlike the chefs who forage, the idea of having something new to a set house menu will need other ingredients that may not be in my pantry. So like a bird watcher, I was content with just identifying the weeds I was treading on.
My husband recalled how he and his cousins would forage with their househelp for clams on the beach near their Leyte house. Most of the clams, however, were harvested by the househelp who was much better at knowing where to dig for them instinctively.
But the real deal was a friend’s story about her foraging experience in Batanes. Writer Troy Barrios did research for her anthropology thesis by staying in the northernmost islands for months. She vacationed there recently and one morning she went with them to find marida, or snails, and she laughed to report she only found one which, if she were only allowed to eat her share, would mean she would go hungry.
The marida is cooked in coconut milk. For shrimps, young men go to the river (aksung in Ivatan) and catch them by hand, imagine that.
And in the sea waters, sea urchin is available and the local name is not what you expect. Utot, that’s how it’s called in Batanes.
Sea urchin was my breakfast in one of my Bohol sorties. A diver jumped into the sea as soon as I had said I wanted some. Nothing could beat that for freshness, immediacy, adventure.
Some of the foraged ingredients can end up being sold in the market or sold to people who appreciate finds like mushrooms that make their appearance after a thunderstorm. How do you think kabuteng kidlat are obtained by Batangas buyers? And what about kurakding mushrooms which look like pencil shavings and are found on dead tree trunks in Bicol?
These are found by experts who may not be as knowledgeable of wild plant life like Lars Norgren is but who know where and when to look.