THIS is the season of spring rains when wild greens or herbs are traditionally picked and cooked into healthy dishes. At this time of year they are said to contain the right kind of energy needed by the body.
The past Wednesday is guyu (literally "grain rain"), the solar term or date on the Chinese calendar when farmers traditionally plant grain.
The planting lasts until around May 5 and this is said to be the perfect time to pick herbs - wild plants are believed to be more beneficial than those that are cultivated.
Ancient Chinese considered spring rains to be auspicious and bring vitality. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the poet Du Fu praised the gently nurturing rain in "Delighting in Rain on a Spring Night." Chinese believed that wild plants watered by spring rain absorb the essence of earth and heaven, and thus are especially beneficial.
It's difficult to say whether eating those plants during guyu is particularly healthful, though there's no doubt they are fresh, tender, aromatic and delicious. And fresh greens at any time of year are highly nutritious; dark greens especially are loaded with antioxidants and beta carotene.
In the Shanghai countryside and further into Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, there are stretches of uncultivated wild greens. The warm humid air is filled the fragrance of wild greens. Women wearing blue calico head scarves pick the plants and place them in bamboo baskets.
They can be made into numerous dishes, quick-fried, tossed, boiled, stewed or pickled. They can be combined with meat, egg, bean curd, mushrooms and other ingredients.
These are herbs commonly used in family cooking, not in fancy restaurants. Some people go on outings to collect herbs.
There are tens of thousands of wild plants in nature, and China is believed to have around 5,000, many of them with medicinal uses and some used for cooking.
Over the years they have been tasted and classified as edible or toxic, their benefits listed. The story of the "Holy Farmer Tasting Herbs" is famous and passed through generations of farmers.
The wild edible plants differ greatly depending on regional climate and soil. This week we introduce five wild plants popular at this time of year in Jiangnan, the area south of the Yangtze River.
Known as water shield or brasenia, chuncai is an aquatic plant with slippery, gelatinous leaves floating on the water. It's common on West Lake in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province. West Lake chuncai soup is popular in springtime.
Picking the plant is difficult since the leaves are slippery; only experienced locals can harvest a lot in a short period of time.
Chuncai itself doesn't have much flavor, so when it is made into soup, it is cooked with ingredients such as shredded chicken, sliced ham and river shrimp. A little sesame oil is added before serving, to improve the aroma.
The mucilaginous leaves in the soup are silky and tender. The soup was said to be the favorite of the Qianglong Emperor during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). He ordered it every time he visited Jiangnan in the spring. The emperor (1736-95) wrote a poem saying that "when it's time to pick and eat chuncai, it's also the time to appreciate the best scenery of Jiangnan."
Regarded as a symbol of spring, luhao (mugwort or common wormwood) grows everywhere. It was praised by Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet Su Dongpo who said that
when the land is green and luhao is everywhere, spring has truly arrived.
Before or during guyu solar term, luhao is very tender and is frequently fried with sliced meat. If it isn't overcooked, the texture is crunchy and the aroma pleasing. It tastes light and can be simply sauteed with ginger, spring onion and a little chili.
It is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine and is commonly ground and burned during moxibustion treatments. It has been considered a magical protective to ward of pests.
A species of toon native to Asia, xiangchun is a perennial hardwood and its delicate spring leaves and shoots can be eaten, as can the older leaves that turn red. The herb is very fragrant and the word xiang means "aromatic."
The fragrance of the leaves and long life of the tree led many poets to use xiangchun as a metaphor for longevity and eternal life. It is now used to represent the father. When people express best wishes to their own or other parents, they always use the phrase chunxuanbingmao, which means wishing health and happiness to chun (father) and xuan (day lily plant, referring to mother).
The fresh leaves can be made into various dishes. Those who don't want too much aroma can try xiangchun coated with egg.
For those who want a stronger taste and fragrance experience, xiangchun with tender tofu lets the herb express itself.
Xiangchun leaves a long and pleasing aftertaste and memory of delicious food.
Also known as kalimeris, and Indian aster, malantou grows in fields, mountains and near streams. Chinese believed that those plants growing near streams absorbed the essence of water and were the most tender and fragrant.
There's a story about how the plant was named malantou, which means "blocking the horse path." Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) writer Wang Xilou described riding his horse in Jiangsu Province and finding the path blocked by thick herbs, which he named malantou.
The plant has a strong and slightly bitter herbal taste, which some people dislike and others enjoy very much. The plant is made into the cold dish malantou with sliced dry tofu. Both the malantou and dry tofu are blanched and finely sliced so the fragrance of the plant is released and permeates the dry tofu.
It's topped with sesame oil.
In Shanghai, where a sweet taste is generally preferred, some sugar is added to the dish, making half sweet, half bitter.
Besides, malantou can be made into the filling for qingtuan, a dumpling served during the springtime Qingming Festival. In TCM, malantou is used to reduce blood pressure and "pathogenic fire."
The plant also known as shepherd's purse and Chinese cress grows in fields, on hillsides and rivers. Stems and leaves are edible and used to make jicai tofu, a popular springtime dish in Shanghai. Fragrant jicai is quick-fried with minced meat and then stewed with tofu. The dish is emerald-green and white in color, and scholars gave it a romantic name, green emerald white jade soup.
When jicai meets meat, the two create an aroma both refreshing and a little fatty. They can be cooked together as jicai meat balls and jicai wonton soup.
In traditional Chinese medicine it has numerous applications, and is used to improve eyesight, treat high blood pressure and stem bleeding, among other things.
According to the book "Qingjialu" being written in the middle of 19th century by Gu Lu about Chinese customs, jicai was used as an insect repellent when the weather starts to warm in April. Various pests came out and women used to place leaves of jicai in the kitchen. Some women also placed jicai flowers in their hair in hopes for good eyesight.