Its cold. Its wet. I’m hungry. Another bowl of sour spicy noodles to warm the belly? Fine.
They call this spring yet our winter coats and thermal socks are still being put to good use. Winter and spring is not my favourite time of the year as we layer on thick coats, don fold up umbrellas and brave the outside weather.
Finding something to eat that can satisfy your hunger pangs can be a bit of a headache with most the Wuhan street food, like hot-dry noodles, beef noodles, doupi, already tried and tested.
If you are feeling little bored with the options we have or having a “I can’t eat another noodle” day, then look no further than your local wet market, street vendor or the closest little restaurant you walk past. Wuhan has an abundance of weird and tasty seasonal fruit and vegetables that grace our streets and local eateries everyday. Winter and Spring has some my favourite vegetables at very reasonable prices so if you’re in the market for a guilt-free healthy lunch, then take a walk past your vegetable isle, pick up a bunch of local greens and get frying.
1Mugwort or Celery Wormwood ( lihao 藜蒿)
Lihao 藜蒿, lóuhāo (蒌蒿) or àicǎo (艾草), is an aromatic plant that falls under the genus Artemisia and is commonly known in English as Mugwort or Celery Wormwood. The species that we see here all plopped up in piles has a long light green stem with small variegated leaves. It comes into season as soon the temperature drops, can be pricey when the weather warms up but its still pretty reasonable now. In traditional Chinese medicine, mugwort is used in a pulverized and aged form called moxa to perform moxibustion, that is, to burn on specific acupuncture points on the patient’s body to achieve therapeutic effects.
Mugwort can be prepared as a cold dish or can be stir-fried. Ask your local eatery or any restaurant if they have it as they might not print it on the menus. You will be given an option of fried with bacon or garlic. I usually go for the fried with garlic option as its such a tender delicate flavour, very green, fresh and aromatic. I was recently pleasantly surprised with lihao served raw as a green salad with a spicy black vinegar dressing. It was absolutely delicious and fresh, something I would highly recommend you try making at home. Scrap the boring lettuce and pick up a bunch of lihao, wash it really well while keeping the leaves in tact and dress it as salad in any which way you choose. To cook it, simply pick off the leaves and cut it into 6cm lengths, then throw the lihao into a hot oiled pan with some sliced garlic or fatty bacon and a bit of salt. Voila! You have a fresh seasonal healthy veggie dish.
As a side note, this variety of mugwort pollen is also a common cause of allergies in Asia but if eaten cooked, it can decrease the allergenicity.
2Sweet Potato ( hongshu 红薯）
For me, nothing says winter more than the baked sweet potato stalls that pop up by the side of the street when the temperature drops. Hearing a vendor call out, “烤红薯了，又香又甜的烤红薯！” (Kǎo hóngshǔ le, yòu xiāng yòu tián de kǎo hóngshǔ!), and before you know it, you are holding one of the delicious snacks, piping hot in a little plastic bag, tearing the skin in half and with a tiny spoon snacking on the hot sweet flesh while you walk home. On busy days, I like to pick up an extra large baked sweet potato, rush home, place it on a plate, cut it open and dose it with butter, salt and pepper, pop a salad on the side and “Bob’s your uncle”!
As a traditional winter street snack, baked sweet potatoes are enjoyed across the country, but with different names. It is generally called “红薯” (hóngshǔ) because of its red skin, but if people refer to it as “白薯” (báishǔ), “地瓜” (dìguā) or 甘薯(gānshǔ), they are talking about the same thing. It is a common snack that everybody can afford to enjoy — at only 3 to 4 kuai, you can get a not only a filling snack but super healthy one at only 160 calories per 180 gram of potato, improve your heart health, gastrointestinal tract and slim your waistline. Sometimes, it is so inexpensive that people suspect the sweet potato vendors are in constant poverty, and use the term “卖红薯” (mài hóngshǔ, sell sweet potatoes) to refer to job positions that do not pay much. There is a humorous saying, “If an official does not put the people first, he might as well go home and sell sweet potatoes” (当官不为民做主，不如回家卖红薯 dāng guān bù wéi mín zuòzhǔ, bùrú huí jiā mài hóngshǔ).
You could also try a not so healthy sweet potato dish next time you go to a local Chinese restaurant. Ask the waiter if they serve Candied Sweet Potato (拔丝红薯 Básī Hóngshǔ)
This dessert dish involves a particular technique known as basi (拔丝), which occurs when you melt sugar and mix it with fruits or tubers. Basi literally means “draw strings,” because when you pick up the hot, sugar-coated morsels on the plate with chop sticks, you will definitely draw some strands of sugar. The dish has to be served hot along with a separate bowl of cold water. Immerse a glazed chunk of potato into the cold water and the sugar coating will harden and become immediately crispy. Sweet and crispy on the outside, with a warm soft filling, this definitely is a dish to add to your lazy-Susan on your next meal out.
3Daikon ( luobo 萝卜or bai luobo 白萝卜)
These giant anaemic looking carrots are in fact daikon, hailing from the radish family. A healthy asian vegetable that boasts not only a cool 18 calories for only a 100g serving, but is able to provide 27% of the RDA for vitamin C. They are available throughout the year but most prevalent in winter where they are sold at very reasonable prices. You have undoubtably tasted a daikon pickle or two accompanying your noodles or as a side dish. One dish that is very comforting on a cold wet day or when sick, is a bowl of pork rib and white radish soup ( paigu loubo tang 排骨萝卜汤), available at most soup restaurants , its served with a bowl of rice and some green onions.
Part of the radish family, daikon is extremely adaptable to whatever flavours it is paired with. While it is not suited for sauteed dishes, or stir-frying, it can be braised, stewed, steamed, boiled, and even grated raw into a coleslaw or made as a quick pickle. Radish leaves are edible, so if you happen upon a nice big radish with some fresh looking leaves attached, cut them from the root and store them in fridge as you would any greens and add them to your next stir fry.
4Loquat ( pipa 枇杷)
Here’s a cool little fruit that made my acquaintance a good 7 years ago in a small dusty Hubei town. Small, orange and unassuming, this little fruit flowers in winter and bears its fruit in spring and summer. The flowers let off a sweet fragrance that can be smelt at a distance with the fruit grown in clusters sporting a downy orange skin. When ripe, the skin can be peeled off manually and the pips should be removed. The fruits are sweetest when soft and orange and have a flavour similar to peach, citrus and mild mango. High in vitamin A and potassium, these little orange fruits would make a nice addition to any fruit salad.
Including more locally grown and seasonal fruit and vegetables into your diet will not only save you money, but will include a wider variety of foods into your diet, provide your meals with more nutritious produce and help the local community.