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Fuki: A Butterbur Taste of Early Spring


Fuki: A Butterbur Taste of Early Spring

Fuki is the (transliterated) Japanese name for the perennial plant butterbur. In Japan, fuki no to, the aromatic buds of butterbur, are a delicacy and a herald of spring, which is still weeks away when they emerge from the cold ground. Butterburs belong to the genus Petasites, and North America is home to a cold-hardy native species as well as introduced butterburs, which are valued as ornamentals in gardens. Their parasol-wide leaves are awe-inspiring, as they broaden in summer. The midribs of fuki leaves are also eaten in Japan, and were a traditional food for Native Americans. All edible parts of the plant are specially treated before consumption. Fuki comes with caveats.

Celebrate winter’s demise with a bite of fuki tempura or miso, and learn more about this plant-of-many-names.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Japanese butterbur, Petasites japonicus.

Fuki, butterbur, sweet coltsfoot, Arctic coltsfoot, Arctic butterbur, pestilence wort. These common names are used close to interchangeably, depending on the person, place, species, and variety of Petasites. Japanese butterbur is Petasites japonicus, and its chartreuse-shaded buds break ground many weeks before the vernal equinox in the Northeast, where it is mildly invasive. Its buds appear when cornelian cherry, hellebores, fragrant honeysuckle, and witch hazel bloom. It is native to East Asia and is hardy from USDA zones 5-9. While Japanese butterbur is known as a good plant for problem places, this has led unintentionally to some environmental issues: Petasites in general can be aggressive colonizers and have a high tolerance for moist spots. Butterburs spread via creeping rhizomes, and their wide, leafy canopies create a super-shade where other plants cannot grow.

[galley_caption]Above: Artist Justice Wolf of Little Creek Ink, standing beneath mature fuki leaves.[/galley_caption]

The densely budded but diminutive flower buds of Japanese butterbur give way to leaves that are otherworldly in scale, like a botanical throwback to dinosaur times. A mature plant can stand over six feet tall, with foliage that instantly shrinks the human standing beneath the statuesque stems.

Above: Petasites hybridus has burgundy buds.

A burgundy-flowered butterbur, Petasites hybridus, is native to Europe and parts of Asia. It enjoys a common name (among many others) that inadvertently captures two sides of a botanical argument: Pestilence wort. You could read that as referring to an environmental threat, or to its extensive use as a folk medicine. (It has been studied in the treatment of migraines.) Of these two species, Japanese butterbur is considered more problematic in terms of habitat-alteration.

In British Columbia, forager Matt McAllister collects the buds of Petasites frigidus for market.

This native North American butterbur comprises four different varieties, occurring from northern California through the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska, into the Arctic, and across the continent, to the Atlantic coast. It, too, likes wet growing conditions (stream banks, ditches, low ground), and has a long history of use as food by Native Americans nations (Moerman, 1998), who collected buds, leaf petioles (stalks), and young leaves.

Above: A Hudson Valley collection of early, mostly invasive, spring edibles, including Japanese butterbur.

In New York I chance upon Japanese butterbur on forays upstate, and am the grateful recipient of buds from the garden of a friend who is slowly weeding them out.

Above: Butterbur buds, or fuki no to.

What about the caveats? Eaten as an occasional, or even once-annual, treat, fuki buds should pose no problem. They should be boiled and soaked, though. Why? Two reasons: Some butterburs are bitter, and all Petasites contain bitter-tasting, slow acting, liver toxins called pyrrolizidine alkaloids. So if you’re a grazing herbivore and you consume a lot of raw butterbur, you may be in trouble, as the toxins accumulate. So don’t eat fuki raw (although there are references to Native Americans eating P. frigidus raw, which is intriguing). Traditional Japanese preparations of fuki involve boiling and soaking. So that is how I prepare my fuki buds for tempura and for chopping and stirring into miso.

Above: When boiled, the exposed part of fuki buds oxidises quickly.
Above: Boiling until just tender takes about 4 minutes.

Once the fuki buds have boiled until they are tender, I plunge them into a large bowl of cold water to sit for five minutes. I then wrap them in a clean kitchen towel and press to remove residual moisture. At this stage their flavor is very aromatic and reminiscent of the smell of crushed chrysanthemum flowers or cooked chrysanthemum greens (another East Asian vegetable). There is a trace bitterness—more a mineral sense of earthiness. (I am told that P. frigidus is less bitter.)

Above: After a tempura batter dip, another three minutes in boiling avocado oil.
Above: Plump fuki no to tempura are delicious dipped into shoyu laced with yuzu syrup.
Above: Boiled fuki no to with miso, mirin, and vinegar.
Above: Fuki no to miso with steamed rice.

Fuki Buds with Miso

The fragrance of fuki buds is enhanced by salty miso and the sweetness of mirin with a touch of vinegar. Add a dab to a bowlful of steamed sticky rice, or swipe the paste across grilled fish, just after cooking. I soak fuki buds overnight in a large bowl of water before proceeding with any recipe.

  • 8 fuki buds
  • ¼ cup yellow miso
  • 2 teaspoons mirin
  • ½ teaspoon rice vinegar

Trim any darker sepals from the buds, if necessary. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop in the trimmed fuki and cook for 4 minutes, until tender. Strain, discard the vivid-yellow cooking water, and dunk the buds into a large bowl of cold water. Leave until they are cold, then roll them up in an absorbent kitchen towel and squeeze gently to remove excess moisture. Chop the buds up roughly.

In a small bowl combine the miso with a little mirin and stir well with a fork or chopsticks to blend smoothly. Add the rest of the mirin and the vinegar and stir together. Add the chopped fuki and stir again to combine. Serve as the only condiment with hot, steamed rice, or add it to dashi just before serving.

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