Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata

Udo (Aralia cordata) may be one of the largest vegetables you will ever grow in your garden. It is a herbaceous perennial, dying right down to the ground every year, then growing to over two metres in height in the summer, so the spring growth is truly spectacular. Since the young shoots can be eaten, this means that it is also very productive.

Udo is one of the Japanese sansai or ‘mountain herbs’. These are usually foraged from the wild rather than being cultivated, but if you don’t happen to have them growing on a nearby mountain they are often quite simple to grow, especially in a forest garden.

Udo will tolerate quite deep shade, making it very useful for awkward shady spots in the garden. Mine has a privet hedge on two sides and a large bamboo on a third: the only relatively open side is the north – but still it seems quite happy. On the other hand, they don’t seem to mind more open conditions either: the one growing in the local Botanic Garden is on a south-facing wall and seems to be thriving. In fact, it was this plant that first gave me a chance to try out a good range of udo recipes while my own plants were still establishing. Mark Paterson, the curator of the garden, generously gave me permission to carry off part of their prize specimen in the name of research.

Udo - with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Udo – with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Here, the stems emerge in April and are good to eat for a couple of months after that. The skin has a bitter, resinous taste, so it is usually removed – peeled off when the stems are young or pared away as it gets increasingly woody later on. The remaining pith – about an inch in diameter on mature specimens – is juicy and crispy and has a taste that has been described as citrusy but really is very distinctive and like nothing else.

Western sources mostly only describe one way of using udo – slicing the pith thinly then soaking it to get rid of any remaining resiny flavour and using it in salads. This is indeed very nice but it seems a great waste to use such a productive plant in such a limited way. A Japanese blog post suggests using it for both kinpira and tempura. Kinpira involves sautéing thin strips then simmering for a short while with soy sauce and mirin, a sweet rice wine. Both ways use plenty of strong flavours so the skin can be left on and the resiny taste used instead of being disposed of. I have tried both these methods and can testify that they are delicious. I also find that udo makes a great stir fry ingredient and goes well in miso soup.

udo parts

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Shoots for tempura: lovage, udo, sweet cicely and hogweed

As well as being a great vegetable, udo is a good ornamental plant, making it very useful for edible-ornamental plantings – just make sure that you plan for the enormous gap it leaves when it dies down in the autumn. It also means that it is a relatively easy plant to get hold of since it is widely sold for this purpose. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions and seems to have only two weak spots: the spring growth is a little frost sensitive, so it prefers a growing position that doesn’t get morning sun; and while it is establishing the new growth needs some protection from slugs and snails who like it just as much as I do.

There is also a cultivar of udo called ‘Sun King’ that is widely sold. It has pale yellow foliage and is much less vigorous than the species. It is less use for the pith since stems are smaller, but the growing tips are milder-flavoured and harden off less quickly.

Aralia cordata flower
Aralia cordata, flower 03” by 三上 勝生f:id:elmikamino:20100723103123j:image(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/63GLJ6OS9)See also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.
Aralia cordata fruit
Aralia cordata, fruit 01” by 三上 勝生f:id:elmikamino:20100817141615j:image(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/63EWlX3Nc)See also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.

Tempura with udo, hogweed, sweet cicely and lovage

If you read online about the origins of the Japanese tempura cooking style, you will discover that it was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries who possibly adapted it from Indian pakora in their colony of Goa. The word comes from the Latin tempora or ‘times’, which was used to refer to the Christian fast days on which meat could not be eaten and fish was a popular substitute. However, we in Scotland know that it is simply an excuse to deep-fry things in batter and that no further justification is needed. If they can then be dipped in soy sauce, so much the better.

I have been experimenting recently with a number of strongly-flavoured shoots from the carrot family, including hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) and lovage (Levisticum officinale), and one from the closely related aralia family – udo (Aralia cordata). In all the carrot relatives it is the young leaf stems that are eaten, preferably before the leaf itself has properly unfurled. Lovage is particularly strongly flavoured and is usually used as a herb, but it can be made milder by blanching it – excluding light from the growing stems so that they come up pale and somewhat chastened. Clay forcing pots are traditionally used for this but I find that an upturned bin works just as well (it needs to be large as lovage is quite a size).

With the udo on the other hand it is usually the pith – the flesh inside the central stems – that is used: the resinous skin is peeled or sliced off. In this case, however, I wanted to find a use for the tips of the shoots that are difficult to peel and include the young leaves. I thought that tempura might be a good way of harmonising all these strong flavours.

lovage - udo - sweet cicely - hogweed

lovage – udo – sweet cicely – hogweed

For my tempura batter I used plain wheat flour with a little corn flour, an egg and chilled water. I mixed it briefly so as to keep it light and fluffy. The stems were all cut up into bite-sized lengths, then coated in the batter and deep fried. You get lots of little bits of batter left in the oil once you take the large pieces out: it is good to get these out if you can or they will spoil your oil.

tempura

The verdict? I loved it! The strong flavours were all still there but tempered by the cooking and the mild batter and by the competition with the soy sauce. This is definitely a dish that I will be making again.