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Cooking, Deliciously, with Common Weeds: A Q&A with Tama Matsuoka Wong

Q&As

Tama Matsuoka Wong did not set out to be a professional forager. But, slowly, as the then-corporate lawyer lived internationally, she developed a passion for learning about wild plants—and later with eating them. Today, wild plants are her vocation as well. Wong provides foraged items—often common weeds like sumac, garlic mustard, or Japanese knotweed—to restaurants including New York’s Daniel and Acme, where Mads Refslund, a founder of the Danish foodie-mecca Noma, is the executive chef.

Tama Matsuoka Wong

Tama Matsuoka Wong forages with one of her three daughters

© Thomas Schauer


The co-author of the new James Beard Foundation-award-nominated cookbook Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market, Wong will give a talk and tasting this Thursday, March 21, 2013, as part of the Museum’s monthly Adventures in the Global Kitchen series. We recently talked with her about her approach to eating from “nature’s garden.”

Daylily

Many part of certain daylily species are edible. At Daneil, they grill daylily shoots.

© Thomas Schauer


How did you get interested in eating and collecting wild foods—foraging?

I grew up in New Jersey but lived in Tokyo, New York, and Hong Kong—probably some of the most urban places in the world.  At one point, my husband bought me a guide to the flora of Hong Kong; my interest developed because these ancient plants are just plain beautiful! For another thing, plants are easier than animals—animals move around. Plants stay still, so I can look at them.

When I first came back [to the US], I had been away for 12 years… so I looked at things differently. One thing I noticed was that people seemed to have an obsession with black mulch and annual [flowers]—every year people go and buy the same fluorescent flowers! I thought native plants were in a way more beautiful, more subtle. I got into this obsessive thing with native plants—and getting rid of weeds. Then, I found that many of the weeds came from other countries (especially Asia) where they are culinary.


So now you’re more interested in weeds?

Well, not all green is the same… As I gardened, I realized that some of the weeds might be good—like knotweed. My Asian relatives were eating it!

How did you start working with the restaurant Daniel?

Friends invited me to eat at Daniel [the flagship restaurant of Daniel Boulud]. I was working right near there, and my friends pushed me to bring stuff—anise hyssop, a fine native plant—to the restaurant that day. “We’re eating here later tonight,” I said. For our meal, they made us two dishes from the anise hyssop—one sweet and one savory. After that, we started a project because Eddy LeRoux [chef de cuisine of Daniel and co-author of Foraged Flavor] said, “Bring me everything!” 

Do weeds taste good?

This is partly why I like working with chefs—I don’t know how to cook everything to bring out the flavor. I remember eating dandelion as a child when my mother was reading Stalking the Wild Asparagus, by Euell Gibbons, [and it didn’t taste so great]. But what I’ve learned is—not to treat it like a weed.

Dandelion Foraged food

Young dandelion leaves, with beef and clear noodles, in a recipe from Wong's Foraged Flavor

© Thomas Schauer


Pick dandelion leaves when young, when the leaves are tender, lighter green, sticking up. With a sherry vinaigrette and potato, a dandelion salad has a nice kick! Or purslane, which has the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids, I’ve read. You can pick off the tips, and eat raw with olives and feta.

Where can New Yorkers find weeds or foraged plants to cook with in their kitchens?

Some farmers at the greenmarkets may sell purslane, chickweed, or lambs’ quarters.  If you don’t see what you want, ask: for instance, Tim Stark, a tomato farmer, has good weeds. But most farmers know their weeds; if you demand it, they will supply. You can also find good stuff in your planter, CSA, or anywhere else you are growing an herb or vegetable.

For tickets to Adventures in the Global Kitchen: Foraging, click here. Come early and visit the exhibition Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture. Ticket holders will receive free admission to the exhibition from 5:45–6:15 pm.

A recipe for Za’atar Spice, adapted from Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market, by Tama Matsuoka Wong with Eddy LeRoux.

Many Middle Eastern families have their own secret recipe for za’atar, a spice blend chiefly used in cooking with meats and kebabs, soups and stews. The taste is nutty, subtly tart, and thoroughly Mediterranean.

Makes 1 ½ cups

 1⁄2 cup Dried Sumac Spice 

[To make dried sumac spice, collect 8 to 10 sumac (Rhus typhina) berry clusters; they ripen in late summer. Heat the oven to the lowest setting. After breaking apart the clusters and removing the twiggy core at the center, wash the sumac berries in cold water. (The water will turn pink.) Spread the berries on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place them in the warm oven for about 3 hours until dry. Grind in a coffee or spice grinder. Sieve the powder to remove the larger seeds. Store the powder in an airtight container.]

1⁄2 cup dried thyme, ground in a spice or coffee grinder

1⁄2 cup toasted sesame seeds

Mix together the sumac, thyme, and sesame seeds and store in an airtight container for up to a year.

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