Tama Matsuoka Wong is plying me with weeds, and it appears to be working. We’re sitting on her shady patio in Flemington, gazing at a sunlit meadow and tossing back cocktails whose dominant note is yellow sweet clover, a wild plant that often makes its home in abandoned fields. In my drink, it offers hints of vanilla and freshly cut hay, mediated by vodka, almond liqueur and muddled blackberries. Although it’s early fall, my drink summons thoughts of summer.
Wong, a former attorney, makes her living foraging wild plants for high-end eateries in the metropolitan area. She has promised to tell me which of the weeds flourishing in my own Nutley lawn might be a culinary bounty in disguise. I already know I have a surfeit of plantain, an unprepossessing plant with little green spindles and a skirt of flat, pale leaves. I’m hoping it’s tasty, but Wong isn’t encouraging. She launches into an explanation of her method of categorizing wild plants based on their edibility (or lack thereof). (Click here for an illustrated guide to some of New Jersey’s edible weeds.)
“First, there’s Delicious; every single chef wants as much as possible,” she says. “Then there’s Delicious But Too Much Trouble; I’m not going to dig any roots or grind anything up. The third is Edible But Tastes Like Cardboard; that’s plantain.”
Oh, well. But you could do worse. Tastes Like Cardboard is followed by Not Really Edible (grass, for instance); Toxic (“You’d probably get sick if you ate it, but nothing more”); and Poisonous, like deadly mushrooms, of which there are many.
For a Harvard-trained lawyer who’s worked and lived in some of the world’s most densely populated cities (including New York and Tokyo), Wong is surprisingly at home among the weeds. In 2002, when she and her family returned to New Jersey (where she was born) after a dozen years in Hong Kong, she never imagined she’d curtail her legal career to ride the crest of a rising culinary wave.
It started with the meadow behind her home. When she moved to Flemington 10 years ago, it was an uninviting quilt of matted grass and bare ground. It’s hard to believe that from this mottled mess sprang today’s undulating field of wild grasses, black-eyed Susans, blowsy white and purple asters, and a throng of other plants shimmering in the afternoon sun.
None would be here if Wong hadn’t been overmatched as a gardener. She planted tomatoes but didn’t have time to tend them, so the vines toppled, the fruit split and the earth beneath the plants produced an abundance of weeds. Then she had an epiphany: Instead of trying to control nature, why not work with it?
“I started to appreciate the exuberance of things,” she says. She shows me a photo of purple love grass, one of the first wild plants to naturally take hold in the meadow. Growing in clumps, it looks nearly translucent, like a roseate cloud. You can understand her reluctance to uproot it. She found herself suddenly besotted with the look and variety of wild plants. “I was reading plant books in the tub at the end of the day,” she says. “My family thought it was wacky, but I was happy.”
Still, the idea that food might be lurking among the weeds didn’t occur to her until friends visited from Japan. Walking through the meadow, they pointed out plants that were native to Asia, many of them edible. Wong was fascinated. She started to research wild foods.
“I’d look in the books and most of the recipes said things like, ‘use in tea’ or ‘boil three times to reduce bitterness.’ I wanted recipes for myself, the way we cook today,” she says.
A solution came courtesy of Eddy Leroux, the chef de cuisine at the renowned Manhattan restaurant Daniel. One night, Wong and her husband dined there with friends. At their suggestion, she brought along some edible plants from her yard to show to Leroux. “He asked me what else I had,” Wong remembers, “and I said, ‘I’ve got hundreds of plants—what are you looking for?’”
“Bring me everything,” Leroux replied. Wong complied, lugging weed-filled trash bags into the city every week for nearly a year.
Wong didn’t realize there was a name for what she was doing. One day, she was regaling Melissa Hamilton, a friend and cofounder of the artisanal Canal House cookbooks, with stories about collecting plants, when Hamilton stopped her. “You know what you are?” she said. “You are a forager—it’s totally hot.” Wong had no idea what the word meant, or that foraging—harvesting edible wild foods—had become the passion of chefs and foodies. Wong shrugs. “I was just doing it because it combined two of my big things: plants and eating.”
Leroux experimented with Wong’s plants for a year before he put them on the menu. In 2012, he and Wong collaborated on a cookbook, Foraged Flavor, featuring recipes like dandelion flower tempura and stinging nettle pizza. Since then, she’s added five Manhattan restaurants—Gramercy Tavern, Acme, Restaurant Marc Forgione, Khe-Yo and Il Buco Alimentari—to her list of clients. She also forages for Zone 7, a New Jersey-based farm-to-chef distributor.
Recently, Wong branched into cocktails and beer, working with Darryl Chan, head bartender at New York’s Bar Pleiades, to develop weed-based libations like Beach Plum Fizz. Incorporating sumac syrup and beach plums macerated in gin, it could be the quintessential warm-weather drink. (“It’s really refreshing,” Wong notes.) As she and Chan experimented, they discovered the secret to weed-infused cocktails: The plant’s flavor needs to be strong enough to counter the alcohol. Chokecherry syrup, she says, was “eh,” but wild cherries paired nicely with rum.
Desserts require less obtrusive flavors (wild berries excluded). Mugwort, which resembles chrysanthemum, can be baked in a cake that makes a great foil for yellow sweet-clover cocktails. With the crumbly texture of a fruit bread, the cake is lemony and herbal, shot through with slivers of dark green. “There are acres and acres of it all over New Jersey,” Wong says.
These days, Wong doesn’t just rely on nature’s hand for her specimens; she also does some cultivation of her own. After Hurricane Sandy, she and her husband split some downed trees and used them to frame a rough garden bed, which they filled with clods of soil from a nearby nursery. Almost instantly, wild plants began to emerge from seeds hiding in the nursery soil. If Wong recognized a tasty plant, she’d let it grow; less desirable invaders were yanked. She offers me a sprig of one of the survivors, purslane, a sprawling weed with small, fleshy, dark-green leaves that populates my own lawn in spring. I’d known it was edible—you can often find it for sale at farmers markets—but I’d resisted trying it on the erroneous assumption that it would be mushy. In fact, it’s pleasantly crunchy with a slight bite, a little like watercress, but more toothsome.
Wong pops another piece in her mouth, then offers me what could be the most persuasive argument in favor of weed eating. Purslane, she tells me, contains more omega-3 fatty acids—believed to have a beneficial role in fighting various ailments—than any other plant, wild or cultivated. In fact, recent research indicates that, by cultivating food crops, farmers have unintentionally bred the nutrients out of them. Dandelion greens, for example, have seven times more phytonutrients—plant-based compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties—than spinach. And chickweed, that bane of suburban gardeners, offers nearly three times the calcium and more than 100 times the iron of kale, which has recently been touted as a superfood. (Chickweed also tastes like spinach, with a much more agreeable texture.)
By the time we’ve nibbled our way across the yard, I’m thinking there might be a meadow in my future. Unlike my current garden, which requires weeding, watering, fertilizing and mulching, a meadow pretty much tends itself. (Wong did have to erect a fence to keep out deer.) It’s the essence of sustainability, attracting and supporting extensive populations of birds, bees and other essential pollinators. And it feeds both the senses and the family.
For now, I’ll probably stick to harvesting the dandelions, purslane, wild violets and yellow wood sorrel that I’d heretofore considered interlopers. Foraging, after all, comes naturally to humans—or it would if we didn’t grow up thinking all food comes from the supermarket. As Wong says, “if you’ve ever picked a wild berry off a bush, you’re already a forager.” Count me in.
Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.