Build me up, butterbur

Springtime in Japan is synonymous with this curious plant, and it’ll leave you feeling bitter—in a good way?

It’s been a long winter, hasn’t it? Icy roads, freezing temperatures and gusts of wind that cut like a knife are no stranger to many of us in North America and Asia alike, but the good news is that we’re nearing the end. March often signals a transition period when the white begins to fade away and the green gradually makes an appearance again. So this month, it’s the perfect time to discover something new—like fukinotou.

Native to Japan, China and Korea but also found in parts of Europe, fukinotou is no ordinary herb. Also called butterbur or sweet coltsfoot, it’s a perennial plant known to most Japanese as a member of the sansai (mountain vegetable) family and is a welcome (albeit somewhat bitter) addition to springtime diets.

Thriving in wet, shady and relatively cool conditions, fukinotou can typically be found growing on mountainsides and in creek beds through the late winter and early spring months, each enormous leaf fanning out like the surface of a wide-brimmed hat. (Unsurprising then that its species name, Petasites japonicus, is derived from the Greek “petasos” or a felt hat traditionally worn by shepherds.) Once plucked from the ground or grocery store, fukinotou is ready to be prepared in one of two typical ways: as fuki-miso or as fukinotou tempura.

To begin making either dish, peel and discard the leaves, then wash the buds and stalks to remove any dirt. Consider blanching or boiling them in salted water or water with baking soda to pre-emptively remove some of the bitterness (a process called aku-nuki—literally “harshness removal”). For fuki-miso, slice the buds in half and boil them in a pot with miso, mirin (sweet rice wine) and a pinch of sugar or tablespoon of honey to create a deliciously bittersweet companion to rice dishes. For fukinotou tempura, chop the stalks into bite-sized pieces and coat each one in a batter of flour, potato starch and water. Heat oil in a pan until it bubbles and then add the stalks. Don’t go anywhere because in 10 to 20 seconds they’ll be ready to come out! Salt, let dry and then bask in their crispy, oily goodness.

While fukinotou has been sought out as a healer of a multitude of ailments in the past— in ammation, asthma, allergies and headaches to name a few—it’s crucial to note that this green must be consumed in moderation. Like other Petasites plants, fukinotou contains alkaloids linked to liver damage; one such alkaloid, petasitenine, is a known carcinogen. Preparation methods like blanching or boiling to remove bitterness are commonplace and work to remove alkaloids, but butterbur beginners should take note: this is one veg that should not be eaten raw.

This month, before winter is truly behind us and spring is in full swing, stop by your local Asian market to see if they have fukinotou in the produce section. Japanese immigrants introduced the plant to British Columbia, so it’s not unheard of to see it for sale in Canada. Grab a few friends and try some bitter buds with your (hopefully not-so-bitter) buds.