Foodies in Beijing prepare edible wild plants and cook inspired dishes to welcome springtime

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/4/16 17:18:39

A farmer sells fresh Chinese toon at a local market in Yunnan Province. Photo: IC

When spring arrives, everything comes back to life, and people want to eat something fresh. Beijingers know a lot about what to eat in early spring. There is even an ancient saying "eat the spring," which means eating fresh vegetables and making special dishes in early spring.

Many edible wild plants grow in the suburbs of the capital. Even flowers and the freshly sprouted leaves of trees can be made into a dish. The idea is that people "eat the spring" and get happy and healthy.

Vegetable vendors at Yingbin Grocery Market in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province sell their newly harvested wild vegetables. Photo: IC

Taking a bite out of spring

At the beginning of spring, some old Beijingers would buy a white radish and eat it raw. It is said that the custom has a history of more than 1,000 years. Taking a bite of a raw radish back then was believed to have imbued the individual with the ability to do anything. Nowadays, the practice symbolizes the tenacity of the Chinese people and remains a traditional custom in some places in China.

On the morning of the first day of spring, vendors in Beijing carry white radishes to the hutong to sell. They say their white radishes taste like pears, and people, especially children, would bite into the raw root vegetable.

People also believe eating fresh, new vegetables in spring can prevent diseases and make people healthy. Ancient classics and historical records from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) reference people collecting and eating wild plants and cooking "spring pancakes."

Spring pancakes or "lotus leaf" pancakes as they are more popularly called are actually made using dough and boiling water. People put stir-fried vegetables and meat on the pancake, roll it and eat it. There are many kinds of vegetables: fragrant-flowered garlic, mung bean sprouts, spinach and so on. Fried eggs and shredded meat can also be rolled into the pancake. Beijing residents also cut roasted duck, smoked chicken and other meat into small pieces and add them to the pancake roll.

A wild plant called Choucai bound and ready for sale Photo: IC

A dish made of wild fiddlehead Photo: IC

Bamboo shoot soup with fresh and salted pork Photo: IC

A cold dish made of wild fish mint Photo: IC


Fresh flavors

As the earth comes back to life, there are more and more fresh things to eat. After the first spring rain, Shepherd's Purse or Capsella bursa-pastoris starts to grow. It is a favorite of many Beijingers and can be stir-fried with eggs, shredded meat and tofu. The stir-fried dishes can be eaten with spring pancakes. The plant is also used in cold vegetable dishes and as the filling for dumplings and wontons.

Chinese toon, also known as Xiangchun, is another must-eat in spring. The tender new leaves of Chinese toon are delicious. They can be stir-fried with eggs or made into a cold dish with tofu. Old Beijingers like to eat it with fried fish. It is said that the famous Chinese artist Qi Baishi (1864-1957) loved to eat Chinese toon and wrote many poems about the plant. He loved to eat stir-fried Chinese toon with eggs and put Chinese toon into noodles with soybean paste.

When elm and locust trees blossom, their flowers can be made into tasty spring dishes. The two kinds of flowers taste sweet, and it is well known that they taste best when cooked with other kinds of wild vegetables. Elm flowers can also be used to make pastry, and locust tree flowers can be used to make porridge, pancakes, dumpling fillings and steamed buns.

Into the wild

The poplars blossom in early spring, producing catkins which are also edible. People clean the poplar flowers, put them in hot and then cold water to remove the bitter flavor, add oil, salt and flour and then steam them to make a snack. Poplar flowers are said to be good for one's digestive health and a natural antidiarrheal.

Newly-sprouted willow leaves are also very delicious. It is said that the most delicious willow leaves grow in Liulangzhuang in Haidian district and along the city moat near Dongzhimen. The closer to the water the willows are, the more delicious the willow leaves are. They are mostly used to make cold dishes with sesame oil, vinegar, Zanthoxylum oil and mashed garlic.

In the spring, more than 10 kinds of edible wild plants thrive in Beijing's suburbs. Endives, dandelion, purslane and calimeris are just a few. For many Beijingers, foraging for wild vegetables in spring is a lot of fun.

Main: A woman digs up wild vegetables in a park. Photo: IC



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