To suggest that Tama Matsuoka Wong has many strings to her bow is to engage in grand understatement. She is, in no particular order, a professional forager, weed eater, meadow doctor, corporate lawyer, and mother of three. Her company, Meadows and More, supplies wild and foraged plants to restaurants and food companies all over New York and New Jersey (including FreshDirect, yay!). Read our interview after the jump.
FreshDirect: Hi Tama. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into the foraging game?
Tama Matsuoka Wong: Well, I didn’t really know it was even a game! [Laughs.] I was just trying to make recipes from weeds that were growing in my backyard. I was still working as a lawyer when I began. There was never a plan to do this.
FD: I read somewhere that you left Hong Kong because you wanted to live in a cleaner environment?
TMW: Yes. I was working in Hong Kong for 12 years and then I moved back here because my daughter started having bad allergies. We couldn’t work out what specifically she was allergic to, but every time we ate processed food she would start getting them and she even ended up hospitalized with a high fever. Later, when we went on vacation to Australia, the allergies completely cleared up. So I made the decision to move back home.
FD: Did you have any prior foraging knowledge before you began doing it?
TMW: You know, it’s kind of weird. I was born in New Jersey, and I think when you’ve been overseas for a long time, you see the same place differently. You appreciate it more. Anyway, when we came back we bought this place in New Jersey, which was a major fixer-upper, and there was so much natural beauty and resources around it that I didn’t want to wreck it. I first approached what was growing there from a plant and stewardship point of view. I considered the landscape and the ecology of the area.
FD: Did you try to plant anything?
TMW: I did try to plant things and they all died. But then I became more and more interested in what else was growing there. The cultivation of the plants for culinary purposes came later.
FD: Have you ever tried eating something that had a bad effect on you?
TMW: No. I don’t take risks.
FD: If the plants in your backyard were growing wild, how did you keep track of them all?
TMW: First, I inventoried everything. I got very obsessive. I would read plant books in the bathtub at the end of every day. There are a lot of naturalists that live in the area so I would pick experts’ brains, too. I also took classes.
FD: When you inventoried everything, how many different plants were growing in your garden?
TMW: Over 200. After I was done with my yard I began mapping the plants of New Jersey, as there’s no existing flora map of the state. I worked with other botanists and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and we mapped over 6000 plants, so I know what’s native and what’s not.
FD: Did you have an interest in plants when you were growing up?
TMW: My mom had a lot of books on plants, so I grew up with them, but I didn’t really think about it. My mother’s Chinese and she’s really into cooking and would use things like dandelions in recipes. My dad’s Japanese, so he has a natural appreciation for nature and he’s also a scientist so he’s into categorizing, and I think all of that helped me.
FD: If you ever found yourself stranded in a strange forest, would you be able to survive based on your botanical knowledge?
TMW: I could definitely survive. There would be plants I wouldn’t know, but the thing about most of the plants I forage is that they’re worldwide and can be found from China to Britain to here.
FD: Is what you forage primarily for garnish or for salad components?
TMW: There’s a stigma around garnishes that they aren’t important, but garnishes give flavor. So, no, don’t eat a lot of purslane in one go, but add it to a salad sparingly and it gives a lemony, crisp flavor and texture. I’m trying to question the way we think of garnish. You could use purslane as salad leaves, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
FD: Do you get all your produce from your backyard?
TMW: No. I get a lot of it from my place, which is 28 acres, but I also collaborate with land managers, and I take away things they don’t want. I also lease some other places.
FD: Which New York City restaurants do you supply with foraged produce?
TMW: I supply Daniel, Café Boulud, and Daryl Chan. We’re going to be doing an event with foraged drinks soon, too. A lot of these plants are great for drinks because they have such strong flavor profiles.
FD: What’s your favorite foraged plant to use in a cocktail?
TMW: Green juniper berries. Delicious!
Check out Meadows and More’s products on our site here.