Nature's springtime gifts

Updated: Apr 24, 2018 China Daily Print
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Pomegranate-shaped steamed buns with minced pork and shepherd's purse stuffing. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Traditional and fusion cooking styles, regional and international ingredients and a new awareness of healthy eating are all factors contributing to an exciting time for Chinese cuisine. Pauline D Loh writes.

Outside our backyard in Beijing there is a mist of green slowly covering the hard grey ground. On the trees, tender young leaves appear almost overnight, sharing space with tight round buds that promise to bloom.

The yanghuai, or locust tree, will soon be heavy with clusters of creamy white buds, pendulous and scented with honey. There will be many hawkeyed predators waiting for the buds to get large enough, and they will come in the dead of night, armed with their knives and scissors.

The locust buds are a beloved food in spring, rinsed off in salt water and tossed in cornmeal before being steamed. They are a delicious gift from nature.

The flowers are also steamed on their own, and chopped up as a fragrant filling for dumplings and pancakes. In our house, the flower clusters also get deep-fried as tempura, which is excellent beer food.

The Chinese violet cress, eryuelan, is also out now. These little wild violalike herbs are enjoyed for their flowers but harvested for their tender young, mustardlike leaves. Our nanny (ayi) loves them tossed in a salad with a light dressing of vinegar and sesame oil.

But it is the shepherd's purse that is most prized of all the wild herbs of spring, and our ayi will forage far and wide, by the river and in the little wood nearby, for this tasty vegetable with its unique rosette of leaves.

She's not alone.

Jicai is most famously used in boiled dumplings, or jiaozi. Our ayi will carefully wash the jicai she has gathered, making sure all of the dust is cleaned off with repeated rinsing.

The jicai will next be blanched in boiling water and then thoroughly drained before being finely chopped. Mixed with ground pork, it will soon become delicious dumpling filling.

Our ayi is from Henan province, and the shepherd's purse is a taste of home. In fact, jicai dumplings are so popular that they are one of the best-selling dumplings in the supermarket chillers.

There are other spring plants, such as the hao, or wild chrysanthemum, with its jagged leaves and distinctive pungent fragrance, and the mugwort, used in infusions to ward off the harmful elements during Tomb Sweeping Day - Qingming - earlier this month.


Toon shoots are among the popular spring vegetables. [Photo provided to China Daily]

During the Qingming period, when families remember their ancestors and tidy the family graves, bunches of mugwort are hung up on doorways to repel pests and pestilence. The weed is also pounded and its juice extracted.

The dark liquid is mixed into glutinous rice flour for the seasonal qingtuanzi, or green balls. This seasonal sweet snack is especially popular in places south of the Yangtze, such as Shanghai, Suzhou and Yangzhou.

In the warmer climates where spring comes earlier, jasmine buds, telosma - the flowers of the Chinese cowslip vine - and tender cassia blossoms are also popular. These slightly sweet flowers are often mixed into an omelette or made into a delicately scented egg drop soup.

In spring, wherever an elm tree grows, people living nearby will look forward to the tender seed pods, the elm "coins". They are harvested and cooked for a special pancake.

The Chinese find spring greens fascinating after the long hard winter, and even the freshly sprouted shoots of willow are foraged. Are they edible? Yes. Do they taste good? That's debatable.

But these are the rituals of spring for many Chinese who have gone through the hard times, or are not so far removed from their agrarian roots. Nature helped with her gifts in times when food was scarce, and enjoying them is a grateful memorial to such times.

My favorite spring vegetable has to be the toon shoots from our two trees. The Chinese toon is pretty widespread, found the length and breadth of China. It is a tall, lanky tree with dull green leaves that grow undisturbed at the bottom of most gardens.

Perhaps if you brush against it you may get a hint of its special pungency.

It sheds its leaves in winter and, when the sap begins to run in the spring, it puts out clusters of deep maroon shoots. This is what we've been waiting for.

These shoots are delicious when lightly blanched and chopped and generously scattered over soft tofu, dressed with a light soy sauce and sesame dressing.

Or they can be dredged through a light tempura batter, deep-fried and served as beer food. Another favorite way to serve it is to chop it up and cook it in an omelette.

Why the fascination with toon?

It has a very distinctive fragrance, which some describe as a mixed bouquet of allium flavors such as leeks, garlic or chives ... but not quite. For those who like the taste, it can be addictive and having a platter of xiangchun on the table is a sure sign that spring has finally arrived.

Fortunately, the xiangchun, or toon tree, is very fast-growing, despite losing most of its shoots every year, and it is prolific in most cities in the north.

There are many more spring plants that are popular with certain ethnicities in China but are considered weeds in other communities. In the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, for example, the tender shoots of nettles are harvested as a vegetable.

These are blanched to get rid of the sting, then dressed in garlic juice. Dandelion greens, known as kucai, or bitter vegetables, are eaten in a similar way.

Weeds, herbs, flowers, shoots ... did someone say that the Chinese will eat anything? Well, not quite. They certainly eat only the freshest.


Pomegranate-shaped steamed buns with minced pork and shepherd's purse stuffing. [Photo provided to China Daily]



Shepherd's purse dumplings

1 kg shepherd's purse (or fresh spinach or amaranth)

500 g minced pork

1 teaspoon ginger juice

1 teaspoon hot chili oil (optional)

1 tablespoon oil, plus 1 teaspoon sesame oil

Soy sauce, salt and pepper

50-80 dumpling or gyoza skins

Wash and rinse the vegetables, then drop them into boiling water for two minutes. Drain, cool and chop. Squeeze out all the water with your hands. If there is too much water in the filling, your dumpling skins will break.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the meat mixture, ginger juice, soy sauce, salt and pepper. Mix in the chopped vegetables, then add the tablespoon of oil and teaspoon of sesame oil.

Mix well and set aside to rest for five to 10 minutes.

Place a large spoonful of filling and seal the edges. For the potstickers or fried dumplings, crimp or pleat the edges of one side to get the concave shapes so they will stand in the frying pan.

For boiled dumplings, just make sure the edges are sealed tight with a smudge of water.

Fry the dumplings for five minutes over medium heat to crisp the bottom, then add boiling water to the pan and cover and cook another 10 minutes. Allow the water to evaporate, uncover and cook until bottoms are golden brown.

Boil a big pot of water and add dumplings. When the pot comes back to a boil, add half a cup of water to calm it down. When it boils again and the dumplings float, they are done.

Chop up some garlic and ginger shreds and place in vinegar and soy sauce for a dip.

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