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These Seven Spring Vegetables Are In Season Right Now. And You Should Eat Them.

A beautiful and loving ode to seasonal produce.
Last updated: 2020-04-07
Photos: Brandon McGhee
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.
There's a lot to be thankful for in China this spring. Life here is not perfect. But it's continuing and the fear that characterized February seems to be receding. We don't know what summer will look like, here or in the rest of the world, but right now is as good a moment as any to stop, take a deep breath and remind ourselves that of all the things that are now broken in the world, the natural cycles of life are still intact.

The trees are still growing new leaves (and we can eat them). The bamboo is still putting out slender new shoots (and we can eat them). Clover and herbs keep sprouting tender leaves (and we can eat them).

The seasons are changing and with the returning warmth, we get a crop of new vegetables at the wet market (and these are best bought at the wet market). They won't last long. Clover is on its way out and xiangchun lasts a few weeks at most. The rest will be gone in a month, maybe six weeks.

China's seasonal vegetables and fruit are really something to celebrate, and not just for the metaphor that they represent. So we went shopping at our nothing-special neighborhood wet market, at the top of Donghu Lu, and gave them the glamour shot treatment in the SmartShanghai photo studio.

If you're not inclined to cook them yourselves, we have a few recommendations on places that are serving these seasonal vegetables. But remember that stock and seasonality vary day-by-day, so if you have your heart set on a plate of booze-fragrant clover, it's best to call ahead.

Xiangchun (香椿), or Chinese Toon

What it is: The new leaves of the Chinese mahogany tree. Yes, tree leaves. Young, baby tree leaves, harvested off the tree with a hook attached to a long pole. They are divisive. People who love them really love them for their garlic-ish taste. People who hate them say they taste like feet. The best ones are dark pink or purple, like in this photograph, though you can also eat them green.

Who serves it: Judging by a search of Dianping, vegetarian restaurants really love these leaves. Vegetarian Lifestyle uses xiangchun in vegetarian meatballs; Gwen's Jiang makes a tofu bowl with them; and Vegetarian Heart makes it into a crisp egg pancake. If that's too wholesome for you, Xin Rong Ji stir-fries it with eggs (for 198rmb!), while Da Dong makes a zhajiang mian with it.

Fava Beans (蚕豆)

What it is: Candou in Chinese, fava or broad bean in English. Serial killers like them with liver and a nice Chianti. Tax evaders make 15-picture slideshows about them. They are a pain in the ass to peel because you have to shell them from their giant pod and then individually peel every bean. Great mashed on toast. Little tidbit: China grows 40% of the entire world's fava beans.

Who serves it: Mingchu is a classic Shanghainese with an old, revered chef of some special bloodline. It's also pretty casual and they do fava beans fried with pepper. Jiu Kuan, a real grubby joint off the side of the highway with some excellent Ningbo cooking, does them as well. Or do it star-style, at the fancy Moose, which has a hot dish of spring onion-fragrant fava beans for 58rmb.

Malantou (马兰头)

What it is: Once a wild herb that grew wherever it could, malantou these days is farmed. It's harvested in spring when it's still small and tender; otherwise it grows quite high and has a purple daisy-like flower. It has a pretty strong grassy taste, which is probably why many people still consider it a "wild vegetable" with "wild flavor" (野味). It's almost always blanched, chopped and mixed with dense tofu, sesame oil and salt as a cold dish: 马兰头香干 (malantou xianggan). Once in a while, you'll find it used in other ways, as in Wang Jia Sha's qingtuan.

Who serves it: Pretty much every Shanghainese restaurants serves malantou xianggan. Even Din Tai Fung has it. Ever been to Aunty Edamame, down a little path off Changshu Lu? People say good things about it. Maybe try that.

Spring Bamboo Shoots (春笋)

What it is: Uh... it's the shoot of a bamboo. Right. But the spring shoot is different than the winter shoot is different than the less-common third-season summer shoot. In spring, the shoots are allowed to come up above ground a little bit before they are picked, and they are long and slender. Very delicate. Kind of like an artichoke heart in flavor. In winter, the shoots (冬笋) are dug up from beneath the soil and they are squat, fat little guys. Both excellent. The summer shoot (鞭笋) is a thin above-ground shoot as well.

Who serves it: Find a Shanghainese restaurant. They'll have it. Here's two I confirmed that are doing 油焖春笋 (you men chunsun), where they are briefly fried and then braised in soy sauce and sugar: the classic Shanghainese grandpa chain Yuan Yuan and the indie favorite Jianguo 328.

Caotou (草头), or Clover

What it is: Three-leafed clover. Extremely popular in Shanghai and the Jiangnan area in late winter and early spring because it's just so damn good. The leaves are super tender, the flavor is a little grassy and when stir-fried with baijiu — the best use of cheap baijiu, hands down — it becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Who serves it: If you want it stir-fried with a little booze, then any Shanghainese restaurant will do, from the bottom to the top. Here's three options: Dong Jing Ye Shu on Fumin Lu (also popular for their hongshao rou with cherries); Rui Fu Yuan (also popular for their yellow croaker and white pepper soup with little bitty wontons); and Old Jesse (also popular for their everything).

Otherwise, this place does caotou guotie, this legacy restaurant is one of hundreds who do caotou juanzi (caotou with red-braised large intestine — better than it sounds) and this is the only place in downtown I could find to use caotou in bing — it's really a countryside Shanghai dish.

Green Garlic Shoots (蒜苗)

What it is: The original allium in twice-cooked pork. Fuchsia Dunlop says it best in The Joys of Garlic.

Who serves it: This is really hard to say, as Sichuan restaurants use leeks, which they can get all year round. While there may be a couple small places using the green garlic shoots while they are in season, I can't find 'em, so if you want to be assured of eating them, make your own twice-cooked pork. Here's a recipe.

Sweet Peas (青豆)

What it is: It's a pea. I don't have much to add. The Telegraph says: "The pea is only green when eaten because it is picked when still immature. A ripe pea is more yellow in color. Eating peas when they are green became fashionable in the 1600s and 1700s but was described by the French as 'madness'."

Who serves it: Fancypants Ningbo restaurant Yong Fu does an 88rmb plate of shelled peas with ham and a tiny bit of rice. Fancypants Shanghainese restaurant Fu 1088 does about the same for ten kuai less. Fancypants Huaiyang restaurant Nanling does fresh peas and ham also. For 168rmb. Madness, indeed.