It doesn’t matter what you call them—weeds, invasive species, feral plants—what matters is how they taste. A group of UC Berkeley professors along with several Bay Area restaurants are betting you’ll enjoy the earthy flavors of so-called “wild food.”
For Wild Food Week, a project called Berkeley Open Source Food will be hosting a series of events and meals this week to encourage diners to expand their palates for wild food—essentially, foods grown without human aid, including many plants typically considered weeds. In the Mission, diners can attend a special preview on April 8th of the soon-to-open Perennial at Mission Chinese Food in which chef Chris Kiyuna will incorporate wild foods into the menu.
“It was like a lesson in advanced food tasting,” said Kiyuna of a tasting in which chefs from participating restaurants, which include Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, Cesar, and Mission: Heirloom, sat around a table of weeds and wild plants. “Some of them are very subtle flavors, some are very intense.”
Unusual plants on the table include things like nasturtium, plantain leaf, yarrow, miner’s lettuce, mallow, sow thistle, and more. For the crew behind the Perennial, the super sustainable endeavor by partners Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, using wild plants has the benefit of having a smaller footprint and minimizing food waste.
In any given farm, labor and resources go into growing the cultivated plants that farmers want and the wild plants that farmer’s don’t want. It’s those later ones that will be featured in Wild Food Week.
“These plants are fertilized and watered and edible, but nobody eats them,” said Myint. “A lot of restaurants already serve things like dandelion leaves and nasturtium, but there’s a lot more of them out there.”
“It’s been really interesting to work with farms and talking to them about what they could do source these things that they typically think of as pests,” said Leibowitz.
In addition to water, labor, and fertilizer going towards producing numerous species that are ultimately tossed aside, large parts of the plants cultivated for sale get thrown out as well.
“Broccoli and cauliflower have these huge leaves but farmers always pick them off,” said Kiyuna, who plans on using these plant’s leaves in his cooking. “Farmers bring to market what they know they can sell, of course there’s so much more.”
Kristen Rasmussen, of Berkeley’s Open Source Food and a nutrition professor at UC Berkeley, says that eating wild food may not just be good for the planet, but also for your health.
“We’re still determining all the nutritional benefits, but in conventional produce, we’ve bred out all the bitter,” said Rasmussen. “We like things that are high in calories and sweet, we’ve bred them to have less nutrients… there’s actually not a whole lot of diversity of nutrients in the typical produce aisle.”
“Wild foods are high in potassium, magnesium, and many things Americans are generally lacking,” she said.
Because of their wildness, the wild plants don’t fit easily into expectations. There’s also what Rasmussen called “the ick factor.”
“The ick factor stands for a few different things. There’s environmental toxins, car run off and things like that, but if you wash them there’s no problem, and it’s just as bad as pesticide,” said Rasmussen. “People always freak out about dog pee, but at a grocery story, those things grew on farm where there’s all sorts of animals, and people are always touching stuff in grocery aisle.”
In prepping his menu, Kiyuna had to decide what to do with yarrow leaves which he describes “really pungent, really strong, really intense.” The question was whether to try to fold into more convention format, say a pesto, or let its form shine through in a more obvious way.
For the most part the Perennial team plan to forefront the wild plant’s funkiness.
“We decided to let them stay true,” said Kiyuna. “Hopefully, it will be delicious.”
To participate in Wild Food Week in the Mission, you can join the special preview of the Perennial on Wednesday, April 8 at Mission Chinese Food. For tickets and information on more events visit Berkeley Open Source Food’s website.