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Tsukushi is a slender, upright stem, averaging 5 to 15 centimeters in length, and can sometimes grow as long as 25 centimeters. The stems are narrow, typically being less than 1 to 2 centimeters in diameter, and have a long, thin, and straight shape, topped with a small, tapered bud-like head. Tsukushi has a shape resembling asparagus, but the stems are hollow and are connected to underground rhizomes that extend deep into the soil. The stems have an off-white hue and are comprised of several bumpy nodes, also giving the plants a jointed appearance like bamboo. Each stem is covered in a leaf-like sheath or membrane with variegated shades of white, brown, and light pink. These casings have tough triangular edges, requiring them to be removed before consumption. At the top of the stem is a tapered, oval bud-like enclosure that holds many spores. The surface of the enclosure showcases hexagonal structures ranging in color from green to brown, depending on age. With time, the spores are released from the top of the stem, causing the tightly closed top to burst open. Tsukushi should be harvested for culinary use when the stems are fresh, young, and have tightly closed tops. If the tops have released the spores, the stalks are not suitable for consumption and will become dry and brittle. Tsukushi is traditionally consumed cooked and has a crisp, tender, and succulent nature. The flavor is mild and mostly neutral, with a subtle vegetal bitterness.
Tsukushi is available in the late winter through the early summer. In Japan, the stems will ripen at different periods, depending on the region, with Kyushu stems being picked in March, Honshu in April, and Tohoku beginning in May.
Tsukushi, botanically classified as Equisetum arvense, is the Japanese name for a species of Horsetail belonging to the Equisetaceae family. There are over 20 species of Horsetail found growing wild worldwide, primarily in the Northern Hemisphere, but Equisetum arvense is the only edible species. Horsetails received their animal moniker from their fertile stem's similarity in appearance to a horse's tail, and the species is also known as Paddock-pipes, Horse willow, Scouring rush, Toadpide, Pewterwort, and Puzzlegrass. Each spring, the plants produce several upright, fertile stems from the underground rhizome, and these stems are sometimes known as the sporangium as they contain an enclosed capsule of spores at the top of the stem. The sporangium's sole purpose is to distribute and expel the tiny spores from the top of the stem into the air to propagate the plant. After the sporangium releases the spores, the fertile stems wither and give way to the main vegetative, branching, green-leafed plant. Horsetails are widely seen across the Northern Hemisphere, but the fertile stems are foraged in Japan as a springtime delicacy. Tsukushi is the Japanese name for the fertile stems of the Horsetail plant. The plant is also known under names including Tsuchihitsu, Tsukuzukushi, Tsukushinbo, Hoshiko, Sugina, and Monkei. Tsukushi appears in the early spring, and the stems have a short life cycle, lasting around 2 to 3 weeks. In Japan, Tsukushi is considered a sansai or wild mountain vegetable and is only foraged, never commercially cultivated. The fertile stems are also viewed as a symbol of spring, as the upright stems suddenly appear, announcing the coming warmer weather and fresh seasonal vegetables. Tsukushi is harvested throughout Japan as a culinary and medicinal ingredient.
Tsukushi is a source of vitamin C to strengthen the immune system while reducing inflammation, and vitamin E that contains antioxidant-like properties to protect the cells in the body against the damage caused by free radicals and oxidative stress. The plants also provide carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the body, and other nutrients, including potassium, calcium, iron, and magnesium. Tsukushi should only be consumed in small quantities as it contains alkaloids and thiaminase, which may be harmful to the body if ingested in large amounts. In natural medicines, parts of the Horsetail plant can be infused into bathwater for enhanced nutrients for the skin. The young vegetative stems have been utilized throughout history, dried and roasted in teas, and consumed as a natural diuretic.
Tsukushi has a neutral, vegetal, and mildly bitter taste suited for cooked preparations. The stems should be properly cleaned and parboiled before use to remove excess bitterness. Only select tightly closed Tsukushi that has not opened its spore-filled heads for culinary use. Opened heads are a sign that the stems are too old for consumption. When harvested, the stems are covered in a tough, chewy, and unpleasant membrane-like leaf known as the hakama. Hold the top of the Tsukushi stem and strip the membrane, gently peeling it away from the stem. This process may leave a sticky residue on the hands. Gloves can be worn to protect against the stickiness. After removing the hakama, place Tsukushi in a bowl of water and wash the stems. The water may turn green from the spores, but this is normal and not problematic. Once prepped, Tsukushi can be incorporated into stir-fries, sauteed into vegetable side dishes with sauces and aromatics, or cooked into scallion pancakes as a springtime variation. The stems complement flavors in egg dishes and are often utilized in tamagoyaki, known as a rolled omelet, steamed egg hotchpotch, or in scrambles. Tsukushi is also simmered in mirin, soy sauce, and dashi in ohitashi, simmered in soy sauce in tsukudani or kinpira or fried into tempura. Try adding Tsukushi to fish dishes or tossing it into pasta as a savory main dish. Tsukushi pairs well with aromatics such as garlic, ginger, and onions, seafood including fish, shrimp, and scallops, mushrooms, carrots, radishes, and sesame seeds. Prepped Tsukushi should be parboiled on the same day it is harvested. Once parboiled, the stems can be stored in the refrigerator in a sealed container for 1 to 3 days. Tsukushi may also be frozen for extended use, but the texture will change over time.
In Japanese, there are several explanations behind the fertile stem's name. One theory points to the stem's similarity in shape to a paintbrush or calligraphy brush, resulting in Tsukushi being translated as "earthen brush." Another theory connects its name to its upright growing nature resembling a stick emerging from the ground. It is said "tsuku" can be a word for "stick" and "shi," meaning "little thing or little child." Tsukushi is also used as a word to describe the spring season in traditional Japanese waka poetry. It is most referenced when describing spring fields, and even in the language of flowers, the spore-bearing stems are said to mean surprise, ambition, or something unexpected, words that mirror their sudden appearance in nature. The first poem to mention Tsukushi in Japan was published in "Fukisho," a piece that dates back to 1225 CE.
Tsukushi is the Japanese name for the fertile stem of the Horsetail plant, Equisetum arvense. This species is thought by experts to be a descendant of an ancient plant that dates back to the Paleozoic Era, specifically during the Carboniferous Period between 359 to 299 million years ago. Horsetail plants are widely found in the Northern Hemisphere and grow wild in temperate regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. Throughout history, Horsetail plants have been utilized in natural medicines and were notably used by the Romans and Greeks to heal wounds, lessen skin irritations, stop bleeding, and reduce symptoms of ulcers. Horsetail was also valued among Native American populations and was used as a diuretic to clean the kidneys. In Japan, Tsukushi has been a viewed wild vegetable since ancient times and is foraged in the early spring as a culinary delicacy. The plants grow across the country and are mainly found in Kyushu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Honshu. Tsukushi typically grows in fields, grasslands, pastures, woodlands, slopes, disturbed areas, embankments, and along rivers and streams. It is important that Tsukushi is never harvested for culinary use in an area where the plants may absorb excess pollution from vehicles and other urban developments, such as the roadside. Today Tsukushi is available for a limited season in the spring and is foraged and sold as a rare ingredient in fresh markets throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Outside of the Northern Hemisphere, it is sometimes found in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and South America.
Recipes that include Tsukushi. One is easiest, three is harder.
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