Article by Martin Zhao
For many locals in Xi’an, spring means eating the bounty of fresh herbs that grow for a short period during the spring. There is a saying that a spring without herbs is a soulless one. During springtime, you will most likely find many locals heading to the mountains and fields to dig up wild herbs with shovels in hands and sunhats on head, as the potherb is the soul of theirs and this is the way they greet Spring.
Since ancient times there has been a wording 咬春 Yao Chun or Bite Spring, it is the season for potherbs in March and April switching from the heavy meats and fish of the Spring Festival holiday to lighter and more fresh tastes. So, tune into the season and get a mouthful of Spring.
香椿 Xiang Chun (Toona)
—Only available for a limited time in Spring
In March, no food tastes better than Chun Ya, the sprout of the Toona plant, which is only present in the limited days of Spring. Chuan Ya is the queen of spring. The red leaves, glassy and shiny, and tiny bite of the sprout is a local salute to Spring.
While the sprouts may be available in supermarkets in the rest of a year, they are much less fragrant than in the rest of the year. For locals, a meal without Xiang Chun in spring is simply never perfect. Xiang Chun is often pair with eggs, stir-fried together for a flavorful dish. Simple, yet satisfying.
芥菜 Jie Cai
Available in early Spring, Jie Cai is a sign of the beginning of Spring. It can grow almost anywhere, no matter how climate and geography may differ. In early Spring, it grows in the fields or on top of the wall, like unfolded green umbrellas.
The poem from the famous poet Xin Qiji in Song Dynasty 城中桃李愁风雨，春在溪头芥菜花, meaning “The trees blossoming in the city, tortured by storm, gloomy and worried, while the Jie Cai blossoming along the brook greeting the arrival of the Spring”.
Jie Cai is of delicate fragrance with no strange smell. In Spring, Jie Cai is often used to fill dumplings.
蒲公英 Pu Gong Ying (Dandelion)
With a bitter taste, which is what may keep you healthy, dandelions bloom rampantly anywhere there is space. There are variety of ways to make it palatable though mostly it is simply great to enjoy when it is cold dressed with sauce.
榆钱 Yu Qian (Elm Seed)
In Spring, when it gets warm and flowers are blossoming, clusters of fruits, green and tender, will sprout from Elm branches. These are Yu Qian, which are round and thin and look like an ancient coin. It tastes crisp, sweet, and soft; pleasant to the palate and the food made from it is a favorites of the locals.
The fragrant Yu Qian is made by mixing Yu Qian and corn flour and steaming it for the right amount of time.
槐花 Huai Hua (Locust Flower)
Huai Hua, may be the most conspicuous in the eyes of locals, as it can be found almost everywhere, around your house and in the streets. It will definitely take a certain generation back, as it was a commonly eaten food before. The snow-white Huai Hua is fragrant and sweet and can be enjoyed in variety of ways, usually mixed with wheat flour and steamed.
灰灰菜 Hui Hui Cai
Hui Hui Cai is an herb that grows in the countryside, in ditches and in fields. Locals will often head out to look for patches of this herb, as it will otherwise be tossed aside by farmers who are planting their crops.
It is said that Hui Hui Cai can help moderate the fat in our body, and it is a good selection for those who are struggling to keep their weight down. It is nutritious and functional for keeping both children and the elders healthy. Like other herbs, it is often mixed with flour and steamed.
苜蓿 Mu Xu (Alfalfa or Lucerne)
It is one of the greens with the longest recorded history, dating back as far as the Tang Dynasty, where it was actually a Palace Dish. Now, it is still a likeable seasonable dish, enjoyed in the sunshine of March. It is of great nutritious and medicinal value and honored as the “Father of the food”. A mix of Mu Xu and flour form a pancake that is a local favorite.
Herbs are a local favorite and are made even more precious by the short spring that we enjoy in Xi’an. Try them while you can, or you’ll have to wait until next year.