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Wild China Spring -- 香椿煎蛋饼


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Xiang chun 香椿 is a "tree vegetable" consisting of very young shoots from the Chinese mahogany tree, Toona sinensis. They are at their best in the spring of the year and are usually referred to as a type of 野菜, which means "wild vegetable." If you leave the tree alone, it will grow to a height of 30 meters or so. But you can cut parts of it back and harvest tender leaves and shoots as a flavorful and nutritious seasonal food, loaded with anti-oxidants and vitamins. They taste floral and almost fruity while still being slightly spicy, suggestive of a cross between garlic, onion and apple, as unlikely as that may sound.









It's abundant in Yunnan, but grows in quite a few other parts of China as well. The vendor from whom I bought them at the wet market was originally from Shandong. It was his wife who encouraged me to plop down the grand sum of 1.5 Yuan for this bunch and try cooking them. She explained that if they had a lot of red color, like these, instead of being all green, it means they will have more flavor. She was right: they were delicious. 


Let me show you one way to cook them, namely as an egg-based skillet pancake or 煎蛋饼。They only take a few minutes and will make a substantial breakfast or fit together with soup as a light lunch. First wash them well, then cut away and discard the tough, woody stems, leaving only small shoots and leaves behind.




Blanch 焯 them in boiling water for 15 or 20 seconds. Just put them in the pan of boiling water, and when it comes to the boil again, fish them out. Set them aside until cool enough to handle, then squeeze out the excess water with one hand 挤干水分。The water in which you have blanched them will have a strong, sulfur-like smell. This step removes the excess of that volatile organic compound, while still leaving enough to lend a pleasant if distinctive flavor.  Now chop the greens coarsely.





Break two or three eggs, tudan 土蛋 (free range eggs) being preferred because they have more flavor. Mix in a teaspoon or so of corn starch 淀粉 and a generous pinch of salt 食盐。Then add the blanched and chopped vegetable. Some recipes call for adding a bit of minced scallion 葱花 but I really don't think it is necessary.


IMG_9608.thumb.JPG.00b04fada2eed21222545b55318f7284.JPGI used one small handful of chopped vegetable for each egg. If the mix is real thick at this stage, add a teaspoon or so of cool drinking water. It's best if this slurry isn't too dense so that it will spread out evenly over the bottom of the cooking skillet or wok. The batter as pictured here was before I added an additional spoon water.







There is a trick 小窍门 to cooking these which has to do with heat. Warm the wok over medium heat, and spread a little cooking oil over it; just barely enough to cover. Then add another tablespoon or so of cool (room temperature) oil and immediately pour in the batter. 热锅冷油。 Swirl it around, making an even layer and turn the cooking temperature to low.





Let it cook for 2 or 3 minutes on low, at first undisturbed and then afterwards you can shake the pan to slide the 煎饼 pancake around. Carefully lift one edge and peek to see if it is golden 金黄 on the reverse side. If so, flip it over. That's not as difficult as it sounds if the pancake has "set" and become solid 凝固。


IMG_9618.thumb.JPG.05dcee6d92b97c1f8214062d4adcf1b0.JPGTake a deep breath and pretend you are a celebrity chef on TV, tossing it into the air with a flick of the wrist. Or you can be humble and use two spatulas together, which is what I did today. It didn't crumble or tear.







Here's the finished product, with some sliced ripe tomato as garnish. Worth the trouble? Yes. This is something I will make again and again.



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Has anyone else who has lived in China run into this unusual "tree vegetable?"


The easiest way to prepare it is to simply scramble it with eggs. And it isn't essential to blanch it first, though omitting that step will let the vegetable taste stronger. Some recipes suggest just steeping the vegetable overnight 浸泡一晚上 and discarding the water.


In any case, I made them the "rough and ready" way today without any pretreatment of the vegetables. Wanted to try out the most unvarnished and basic version of it at least once.












Just washed them, chopped them, and mixed them with two eggs plus a pinch of salt. Scrambled them in a medium wok until the vegetables were more or less tender. 






The finished product. The vegetable had a stronger flavor, plus a bit of a metallic aftertaste in the mouth 后感。 They also had more crunch, a different 口感 from yesterday. A more rugged meal, all in all.




I would stop short of saying that eating them made me feel like a courageos Flying Tiger aviator shot down by Japanese Zeros after crossing the Burma Hump and making his way on foot through the remote western Yunnan mountainous jungles, finally approaching the outskirts of Kunming in search of his forward air base, aided by friendly, if wild, mountain tribesmen who made him this dish on day 19 of his grueling journey in exchange for his blood chit.








Even though this will probably put hair on your chest in addition to keeping you alive out there in the savage jungle, I frankly prefer one of the more refined versions of this fine wild-food item.

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Thanks for posting. This didn't make me feel hungry, not even the refined version of 'fine-furniture-shoot-omelette' with the associated sulfur smell, but it was interesting and educative, anyway. 

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Yes, Luxi, that is a sobering thought.


Many, if not most, of the wild vegetables 野菜 popular in Yunnan seem to have small thorns as well as being distinctly bitter. I could not believe it the first time I tried choking down a mouthful of them in a 傣味 Dai restaurant in Xishuangbanna 西双版纳。


I thought it must be a mistake, even though the local people I was dining with ate them with enthusiasm and relish. The thorns are not as prominent and sharp as those on a rose stem, but they are still surprisingly scratchy. I soon noticed that my friends ate them with a special technique, in which the lips were pulled up away from the teeth into an odd, mirthless smile.


After having had them again and again over the years as part of a "deep-south Yunnan" meal, I have learned to almost like them. They are often an accompaniment when the main protein is crispy fried insects and fat, juicy grub worms, pupae, or larvae. Even in China, such a feast is not main stream, and seems to work best with plenty of beer and baijiu 白酒 to wash it down.




This is a snapshot of some bamboo grubs that my girlfriend brought me back from her 红河州 Hani village. She transported them in a section of bamboo that had some bamboo leaf stuffed loosely in one end. They survived an 11-hour bus ride and were still live, healthy and wiggling on arrival.


I've learned that Yunnan cooking, and several other Chinese regional cooking styles as well, pay a lot of attention to the texture of the prepared food. Pretty sure that's part of why eating cartilage, as in chicken feet and pig ear, and tendon, as in beef tendon, are popular. It surely isn't because of their weak, uninteresting flavor. Same goes for bird nest and shark fin, although those have a distinct flavor and rely a little less heavily on texture alone. 



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The ultimate slimming aid! Sure needs lots of 酒 to go down one's throat --- instead of going straight to the compost bin. Edited to add: I don't know why I'm so fussy, after all they're only 'dry shrimps'.


I did read something about textures being important in Chinese cuisine in an article, but I can't remember the reference now. Is it that a traditional banquet must have certain variety of textures? Is there a classification of textures, as there is of flavours?


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I don't know about a formal classification, but texture is one of the big three, right up there alongside flavor and appearance. Aroma usually comes in fourth. Appearance is stressed more for banquet food than for ordinary home cooking 家常菜。


Also, Yunnan cuisine is noted for being adventurous. Chinese people who visit here as tourists can't get enough of it. Today is Sunday, and this morning in my neighborhood wet market, the guys who sell ganba 牛干巴 had a big mesh bag of live locusts 蝗虫 hanging outside the shop. They are a weekend special item, deep fried to order with dry chilies 干辣椒 and prickly ash 花椒。



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>>" I don't know about a formal classification, but texture is one of the big three, right up there alongside flavor and appearance. Aroma usually comes in fourth. Appearance is stressed more for banquet food than for ordinary home cooking 家常菜。"


Footnote about texture, from an interview with Fuchsia Dunlop:




Were there tastes in Chinese cooking that you struggled to acquire?

Oh yeah. Particularly textural foods. In Sichuan, they love eating all these rubbery, slithery, gristly things, such as goose intestines, rabbits ears and tripe. As someone not used to them, I couldn’t see the point at first: I thought they had no taste, like eating rubber bands. But there’s a whole dimension of pleasure in eating things for their texture. They have a better vocabulary for describing textures than we do in the west. I found it baffling for a long time and only ate these things to be polite, as I always do, but at a certain point I realised I was enjoying them and ordering them. It took a few years [laughs].



Source: http://www.thegannet.com/interviews/fuchsia-dunlop/


Chicken feet 风抓 still put me off to a certain degree, even though I continue to try them on a fairly regular basis. I've told myself that they are sort of a litmus test, in that I will know my palate has been "Sinified" when I begin really enjoying them and seeking them out.


On a tea trip to Menghai County 勐海县 a couple years ago, my friends made a big deal out of taking me to a locally-famous spot that specialized in the best pickled chicken feet in the region. They were served room temperature like a 凉拌 or salad, tossed together with garlic, tiny hot "bird's eye" chili peppers, and cilantro. We sat outside around a folding table on low stools and shared a big bowl of them, spitting bits of gristle, bone, and toenail onto the sidewalk.

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  • 4 weeks later...

It's highly seasonal. All gone from the markets now. They told me it wouldn't be around long, and they were right. It's one of the lessons I've had to learn over and over here: if you see something today and it works out well when you make it at home, don't wait too long to enjoy it again. Otherwise you won't get a chance until next year.

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Believe I only saw it here for about a week. Have you heard anything about it being "poison?" Both the lady who was selling it and my girlfriend warned me that it's dangerous to eat - not sure if they were referring to Chinese medicine or what.

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5 hours ago, Alex_Hart said:

Have you heard anything about it being "poison?" Both the lady who was selling it and my girlfriend warned me that it's dangerous to eat - not sure if they were referring to Chinese medicine or what.


I'm no expert on this, but at least part of this concern probably comes from ambiguity about what Chinese people mean when they  say something 有毒 "has poison." In the case of this tree vegetable, the leaves and stems contain a strong chemical compound 硝酸盐 that smells a lot like sulfur and has what could be described as an almost metallic taste. That's why one blanches 焯烫 it before putting it to any other culinary use.


Was also told that it's best to choose young, tender shoots and leaves because they contain less of these substances. Furthermore I was also warned that this is not a good vegetable to allow to sit around in the fridge and wilt for a few days before using it; should be consumed fresh, soon after it was harvested. Failing that, it should be pickled 腌制 slowly (and blanch it before the pickling starts.)


So from what I've heard and read, 香椿 can be mildly harmful (although not deadly) if not selected properly and used with care. But it's not all that tricky to avoid the hazards. Every year when the summer rains bring us an abundance of wild mushrooms, similar warnings are repeated. Some mushrooms can contain problematic substances and they cannot be prepared just any old way.


Here's a good article I found which discusses the issue in more detail: https://zhidao.baidu.com/question/367486532372547884.html


The summary sentence was: 总而言之,嫩芽、鲜吃、焯烫、慢腌,就能保证吃香椿的安全性。



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Thanks for the summary, abcd! Ever the resource on food! I'm not sure how much I can trust it here as it all looked a bit wilty, but it is gone now. I shall see next year. I have eaten it in restaurants and wouldn't mind trying my hand at it with your recipes on hand.


Do you mean pickling as in a quick pickle or a more proper pickle? Been wanting to try my hand at 梅干菜 or similar veg, but have been daunted by my lack of a balcony.

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9 hours ago, Alex_Hart said:

Do you mean pickling as in a quick pickle or a more proper pickle?


I have not tried pickling it myself, so I have no first-hand experience. But the article I referenced above suggested using a slow ("proper") pickling technique as opposed to a quick method, in the interest of safety. It's discussed under his item 5. Quote:




The writer says that short pickling, for only 2 or 3 days, can cause a rapid ("violent") build up in nitrites/nitric acid (亚硝酸盐) and that a safer technique is to pickle it for at least one week (after blanching first.) He also discusses helpful additives (such as tea leaves.)


I don't pickle my own vegetables here since it requires special equipment (water-seal jugs) and I can buy dozens of varieties of freshly made 酸菜 in bulk at my local outside market for very little money. Not sure I could ever learn to do it as well as they do. It's always such a fine adventure to discuss my pickled vegetable "needs" with the vendors; they give sage and nuanced advice. I always come away enlightened. It makes for an enjoyable consultation!

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