As the days grow shorter and nights get cooler, the leaves are changing color. In Japan, Autumn leaves are nearly as popular as spring blossom. The wave of red, yellow and orange descends slowly from the northern islands and higher mountains to the south and into the valleys. Along with it, accommodation and car rental prices soar; it’s all about the leaves!
So let’s not join the stampede and do something else with leaves. Leaves have many purposes, a typical Japanese one is making tea. They are also perfect to wrap food. Sheets of seaweed for sushi, grape leaves for ‘dolma’ (a middle eastern dish), cabbage leaves stuffed with pork. We know many vegetable leaves to eat but how about tree leaves?
On my last trip to Oshima, a secret little island just 2 hours off the coast from Tokyo, I got to know all about the ‘wild camellia tree’ or ‘yabu-tsubaki.’ These trees are found in China, Thailand, Indonesia, western Philippines and Japan and have long been used by local people to add variety to their diet. And to keep their hair healthy and shiny!
Many parts of the tree can be used. The wood can be made into furniture and charcoal and commercially interesting are the seeds which are pressed to extract oil. It can be used a fertilizer and fuel. And this oil is said to be the reason why Oshima girls have the most beautiful hair in all of Japan as ‘a few drops are enough to restore moisture and sheen.’ I myself unfortunately have little purpose for that so I focused on the leaves again. Traditionally the islanders extract a natural dye from camellia leaves, used to color fabric and paper. And, they eat and drink them!
To get from leaves to tea doesn’t take an awful lot of imagination. Although for me ‘awful’ did come to mind when trying the cold version of ‘ashitaba leaf tea’, a local specialty herb native to Oshima, accompanying my Oshima breakfast. Maybe it was the time of day but it will never be a favorite. That night however, I learned the same ashitaba leaves do make great tempura! Battered and fried. And let’s be honest, most things turn out great tempura-style. Though, it’s not just any oil they fry the leaves in, camellia oil again comes into play but this time for cooking. What do you need? Just a bunch of fresh ashitaba leaves, boiling-hot oil and a bowl of batter. Dip the leaves in the batter, drop them in the oil and fry till golden. Yum!