Last week I saw something on Facebook that I had never seen before — fried maple leaves! Did you know maple leaves are edible? It makes sense since we use the sap to get maple syrup, but I had never considered it. In fact, all parts of maple trees have been eaten or otherwise used by our ancestors.
The custom of eating fried maple leaves — mimoji — may have started as much as 1,300 years ago at the Mino Otaki waterfall in Osaka. Ascetics in search of enlightenment would travel to this beautiful waterfall in pilgrimage.
I imagine it might have been hunger that prompted one visitor to try eating the leaves, but maybe it was purely a desire to become one with the natural beauty. For whatever reason, s/he fried them in oil and ate them, and began giving them to other visitors as they arrived. A tradition was born.
Realizing I won’t be sampling these beside a lovely waterfall in Japan any time soon, I knew I had to try making them at home. I’m sure you’ll be thoroughly shocked, as I was, to know that there are virtually no recipes for momiji in English.
Fortunately, James Wong of The Homegrown Revolution created one, so I started with that. I didn’t stick to it very well, but it didn’t seem to matter too much.
In Japan, the leaves are packed in a salty brine for a year before frying, but since maple leaves are edible raw, and since James Wong didn’t wait any time to make his, I skipped the “wait one year” part of the traditional recipes.
I did decide to layer them in dry salt overnight for reasons that escape me now. I liked the idea of a salty leaf with a sweetish batter, I suppose. The salt dried the leaves and made them stiff, which turned out to be a good thing when I dipped them in the batter. Those petioles made for perfect little handles, too.
For the batter, I mixed a quarter of a cup of unbleached flour with one tablespoon of cornstarch, a pinch of salt, and about a half cup of Trader Joe’s ginger beer — thin enough to dip the leaves into easily but thick enough not to glob up.
I fried them in about half an inch of canola oil, which was plenty, but a deep fryer would be good too. I only made a few so I used a tiny pan (a 5″ cast iron mini skillet) and just did a couple at a time. The salt-brined leaves in Japan take about 20 minutes to brown up, but mine were much quicker — maybe 3 or 4 minutes? I flipped them a time or two.
So how did they taste? And are they worth it?
They tasted a little spicy, which I believe was mostly the ginger beer coming through. The leaves themselves had very little taste raw and even less cooked. I love the shape and the crunch, so I think they could be fun to use as a garnish on a dessert — or what about a fall-y salad like Waldorf? Or maybe an An Asian chicken salad, or even a spinach salad. Some of you will have better ideas…I hope you’ll mention them in the comments.
My picky husband, whose initial response to, “Want to try one?,” was a skeptical, “Nah, thanks, I grazed the woods before I came in,” did eventually take a nibble. He doesn’t like sweet, so I dipped one in an Asian vinaigrette for him. He wasn’t particularly impressed, but he did eat the whole thing. You could say he’s in the Why Bother camp.
But, my daughter was impressed enough with the presentation — a dab of maple syrup and powdered sugar — that she gobbled one and gave it a thumbs up.
So, yes, I would say tasty and worth it, too – they’re crunchy, salty, sweet, pretty, and fun!
I found the history/legend of mimoji tempura here: http://en.rocketnews24.com/2014/10/06/think-youve-had-every-type-of-tempura-not-until-youve-eaten-deed-fried-maple-leaves/.
Interesting aside: While they are fine for humans, maple leaves are quite poisonous to horses.
Thanks to Julie at Garden Delights for expanding my food horizons by posting about fried maple leaves on her Facebook page last week!