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Seasonal fare never goes out of style

NOT a week goes by without some expert positing that the way we eat is fundamentally detrimental to our lives. One week red meat is the bogeyman, the next it's piping hot tea or tea with milk or the moderate consumption of alcohol.

Nitrate fertilizers used on fruits and vegetables may or may not give you cancer, while raw fish may not be as healthy as we assume it is. It's enough to do one's head in.

These warnings may exaggerate the dangers a little, but the message is that we need to synchronize our food intake with what nature intended.

Eating local seasonal produce is one of the most basic, yet most overlooked changes we can make to our diets, and, the benefits are plentiful.

With new farming techniques and technology, there are certain fruits and vegetables (besides the staples such as apples and oranges) that are available all year round, mainly because the people who enjoy them simply will not resign themselves to consuming them at their prime.

Coupled with modern logistics, produce that is in season somewhere on the planet can readily be shipped to pretty much anywhere.

There are gourmands, however, who argue that only seasonal produce should be consumed. The main benefit of seasonal food is its nutritional value - an in-season product is at its peak of maturity, with its maximum vitamins, minerals and micronutrients.

This applies to its taste as well - fruits, for examples, are delivery devices for the seeds within and the ideal candidate for reproduction is one that pleases the animals that disperse them.

White asparagus is often one of the most famous, while locally we have the Yunnan mushroom. Currently, strawberries are all the rage, and the difference between now and after the season is apparent to all with just a passing interest in food.

House of Flour's Brian Tan cannot get enough of seasonal fruits in his exquisite desserts. The Malaysian pastry maestro, who worked in luxury hotels around the world before setting up the bakery-cum-cafe, constantly tweaks his recipes to incorporate the freshest and tastiest, such as his strawberry fraisier cake.

"Seasonal fruit tends to be more flavorful compared with frozen (fruit) and it is much cheaper when in the middle of its peak season," Tan says. "Eating them on their own is nice but then it's not a dessert concept, just like eating steak compared to burger or spaghetti and meat balls. Both give different experience when eating for pleasure."

The Westin Bund Center Shanghai Executive Chef Thomas Rappl concurs, and laments that too many restaurants don't make the effort to differentiate menus between seasons.

"It's an unfortunate decision for the restaurants to serve to their guests unseasonable products," says the German. "Most guests are able to differentiate between a spear of asparagus which is in season and a spear of asparagus which is out of season and has been imported from a foreign country."

The imported asparagus might be quite all right, but there is a considerable time factor for transport added, which does not improve the quality.

"Moreover, the restaurants somehow have to cover the cost for these imported products and it is usually handed down to the consumers, which means the consumers are actually getting inferior product but have to pay higher price," Rappl adds.

Besides the financial implications of importing "out-of-season" produce, social and environmental factors are also issues local food writer Crystyl Mo points out.

"If it grows locally, it is probably an indigenous plant that thrives in this region so it's going to keep better," says the food lover from Boston, the United States, whose husband is a chef.

"We should consider the environment, so we're not importing food over long distances and support our local community of farmers," she says. "Being environmentally aware and supporting local farms is already a big movement in the States."

As far as cuisines go, it is often the local Chinese restaurants that best incorporate seasonal produce, mainly because it is the cheapest. Mo frequents establishments such as Hengshan Kitchen, where she simply asks for the in-season vegetables instead of ordering off the menu.

What's in season

Spring is the season when plants sprout and flourish and the animals get frisky.

? Green vegetables are prime. Asparagus, alfalfa sprouts, pea sprouts, Chinese toon, lettuce, pea shoots, garlic sprouts and shepherd's purse are definitely worth trying.

? Seasonal fruits in spring usually taste a bit sour, which helps nourish the liver. Those in season include strawberries, greengage plums, apricots, plums, mulberries and cherries.

? Seafood is also abundant at this time of year, and local yellow croaker is a favorite.

? Try some honey since spring brings along dryness. Acacia honey is in season and highly recommended.

Check out your wet market

Making the sustained switch to seasonal produce can be daunting as it involves going to local wet markets. Food writer Crystyl Mo and her chef husband Anthony Zhao are compiling a local cookbook, and have extensive knowledge of the wet markets here.

A few hints:

? Going to the markets regularly means you can see at a glance what is in season. These are the products pushed to the front of the stalls and were probably not there during your last visit.

? Build a relationship with the vendors. This way they are more likely to tell you what they believe to be the best items in their inventory, or even give you a few extra items when you make your purchase.

? If you prepare for a party, tell your vendors in advance what you want. This gives the stall owners a chance to get their suppliers to bring some items with a little extra pizzazz.

? If you worry about getting cheated, Mo suggests stopping by the local supermarket first to get a rough idea of the prices. As a rule of thumb, supermarket produce is 30 to 50 percent more expensive, and usually half as appetizing.

? It can be hard to incorporate some local ingredients. You can always go online to search for recipes sites, such as or Alternatively, you can always ask your ayi for tips on what to do with local vegetables.


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