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October 19, 2017

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Herbs, spices and the conundrum of Chinese cuisine

ONE of the reasons Chinese cuisine is hard to comprehend is because of the vast range of ingredients used when cooking up a dish. Ingredients such as jiaobai and huanghuacai are only widely used in Chinese recipes and they can be very regional. As usual, the regional divergence in taste means not all foods are lovable for everybody.

Take fish mint as an example, it’s a popular herb in Yunnan that’s added to all kinds of dishes, but to some it is a fishy-smelling nightmare.


Also known as Manchurian wild rice, jiaobai is an immensely popular vegetable in Shanghai and its neighboring provinces in the Yangtze River Delta.

Sold with the green peels like bamboo shoots, jiaobai is the stem of Zizania latifolia, an aquatic plant native in China.

Jiaobai was originally cultivated as a grain instead of vegetable in ancient times.

Known as gu before the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), jiaobai was once regarded as one of the six grains.

The freshwater plant requires a kind of smut fungus called Ustilago esculenta to grow, which causes the cells to increase in size and number to develop the juicy stem. The smut also prevents jiaobai from flowering.

Jiaobai is widely cultivated across China, especially in Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

Braised jiaobai is a signature summer dish that’s made with the vegetable and soy sauce.

The light, almost sponge-like texture allows jiaobai to soak all the flavors and its rich flavor and tenderness can resemble meat.

Jiaobai can also be stir-fried with other vegetables and meats. Another simple way to serve jiaobai is to steam the peeled stems, slice into strips and served as a dip composed of light soy sauce, sesame oil and chopped scallion.

The vegetable is best enjoyed on the day it’s harvested.

When selecting jiaobai in the wet market, pick the meaty stems with white flesh and a hint of sweetness.

Reeves’ shad

Known as shiyu, Reeves’ shad is a rare delicacy from the Yangtze River and one of the important dishes in the Manchu Han Imperial Feast.

The season to enjoy the fish is very short because the migratory fish only enters the Yangtze River in early summer.

Steamed Reeves’ shad is the go-to way to enjoy the fish. Slices of shitake mushroom, ginger, ham and bamboo shoot are placed on top of the fish to complement the flavor.

Unlike most other fishes, the Reeves’ shad is cooked without removing the scales, because not only are the scales edible and quite delicious, they can protect the tender flesh.

Fish mint

Yuxingcao, a herb that translates as “fishy-smelling grass” in Chinese, is a food nightmare for many. Zhe’ergen is an alternative name for it.

The fishy herb is an iconic ingredient in Yunnan cuisine. The locals could add it in almost anything from salads, stir-fries to soups and even tea.

Fried potato topped with fish mint is a famous street food in Yunnan. While the locals wouldn’t accept fried potatoes without chopped fish mint, people from other parts of China can find the tradition hard to accept.

It is indeed one of the 10 most disgusting vegetables selected by Chinese netizens, alongside the infamous cilantro. Yuxingcao is also celebrated for its medicinal properties in traditional Chinese medicine, and it can sooth a sore throat and ease coughs.

Chinese toon

Every spring, lovers of Chinese toon, or xiangchun, would set off to find the fresh, fragrant vegetable that’s only available for a very short period of time.

China has a long history growing and eating Chinese toon and it was very popular in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Together with lychee, the Chinese toon was considered tributes to the imperial courts.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the Chinese toon is also used to ease the symptoms of a common cold, stomachache and dysentery.

The leaves can be added into scramble eggs and pancakes, but mixing boiled tofu with scalded toon is the best way to enjoy the flavors at the fullest.

Even though some people find the taste of Chinese toon a little smelly and unappetizing, there is actually another species called chouchun (Ailanthus altissima), or smelling tree with distinctive odor.

Highland barley

Also known as Tibetan barley, qingke is a common cereal on Tibetan Plateau where locals use the barley to make bread, beer and noodles.

It’s also cultivated in the provinces including Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan.

Tsampa, or zanba, is a Tibetan staple made of roasted highland barley, which is then ground into a flour and mixed with butter tea to form a ball. Sugar is added sometimes.

The travelers would bring a leather pouch of the flour mix on the road to make meals with only some tea.

The highland barley is also used to make the Tibetan people’s favorite wine, which is quite strong with 40 to 50 percent alcoholic content.


“When the huanghuacai is cold” is a Chinese idiom that means too long, too late.

The vegetable, which translates as a yellow flower vegetable, has been cultivated across China for 2,000 years.

It’s also known as day lily or jinzhencai, or golden needle vegetable because of its shape.

But huanghuacai is rarely eaten fresh or raw.

The day lily flowers contain colchicine, which is poisonous when consumed uncooked.

To cook with huanghuacai, fresh or dry, the flowers must be boiled in hot water.

The dried day lily is the more common ingredient in Chinese cuisine compared to the fresh kind. It can be found in most Chinese supermarkets.

A classic huanghuacai dish is stir-frying vegetables with black fungus and pork meat.

It can also be stewed in soups like hot and sour soup, or added in scrambled eggs for an extra layer of flavor.

Nepeta cataria

Pronounced jingjie in Chinese, Nepeta cataria is commonly known as catnip, and is a mint-like herb used as a vegetable in some parts of China, especially in the central region.

Yes, we can eat catnip too. Some people enjoy the aromatic and slightly pungent herb very much. An easy way to serve catnip is by tossing the fresh herbs with cucumber, a vinegar dressing, sesame oil and soy sauce to make a salad.

The herb can also be added in a batter of flour, egg and salt to make morning pancakes.

In Henan Province and its neighboring areas, the cold noodle in summer always includes garlic sauce, cucumber shreds and catnip. Catnip is also used in herbal medicine to help with various ailments.


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