Vegetable from the West
To the Chinese, watercress is known as xiyang cai (西洋菜), which literally means “Western vegetable.” And yet, even though its moniker clearly associates it with overseas roots, the vegetable has become such a common ingredient in the kitchens of China and grows in such abundance in southern provinces that many Chinese themselves mistake it for a native plant.
The many fables of the debut of watercress in China are all variations of one story: A Chinese man’s quest to seek fortune in the West goes awry, and he is saved from starvation by watercress. He ultimately brings the plant back to China with him where it becomes a household staple.
A closer-to-reality version of history is that European missionaries introduced the plant in the 19th century, when it was one of the most commonly consumed vegetables in the West. It is claimed that sailors ate it to combat scurvy, while laborers bought bunches of it by the side of the road for breakfast.
In Western culinary history, watercress is one of the oldest known leaf vegetables to be consumed by humans and one of the first used for medicinal purposes. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BC), often regarded as the “father of medicine,” is said to have chosen the location for his first hospital based on its proximity to a stream so that he could grow watercress to treat his patients.
The tiny, delicate and clover-like leaves of watercress are indeed a treasure-trove of nutrition. Today, it is marketed as a “superfood” and is revered for its significant amounts of iron, calcium and folic acid. Raw watercress has more Vitamin C than oranges, and when compared to other superfoods, such as raw tomatoes and cooked broccoli, it is substantially higher in vitamins A, B1, B6 and E, as well as beta-carotene. It is also touted as an anti-carcinogen.
In traditional Chinese medicine, watercress is a cure-all when it comes to respiratory illnesses. Coughing, sore throats, phlegm, dry mouth, extreme thirst and bad breath can all be cured by consuming a simple soup made from watercress and arhat fruit (luohan guo 罗汉果). Even pneumonia and bronchitis patients are recommended the soup to speed up recovery.
But this delicious, heartwarming soup is not only for those who are ill; many Chinese meals regularly begin and end with a bowl of this piping-hot broth. As watercress is considered a cool and moist food, it is popular during the hot and dry summer months to balance an excess of “heat” in the body.
When choosing your watercress, look for small, crisp leaves of a dark emerald color. Before eating or cooking it, be sure to soak the vegetable in plenty of water with a couple tablespoons of salt to tease out any organisms; since it is a semi-aqueous plant usually grown near livestock, the chance of germs or parasites hidden amongst the leaves can be high.
The bitter and peppery taste of raw watercress might be difficult for kids to enjoy, but this can be tempered by cooking it to bring out its sweetness. Instead of the usual watercress salad or sandwich, try a quick stir-fry with a dash of soy sauce and plenty of garlic. Add a sprinkle of sugar to mask any remaining bitterness. Or make a creamy potage cressonniere – a French standby that can be as simple as a couple of potatoes and a bunch of watercress thrown in the food processor with some stock.
Arhat Fruit and Watercress Soup
This dairy and fat-free recipe is incredibly silken in texture and can be served cold as the months warm up ahead. Kids will be so distracted by the velvety mouth-feel that they won’t realize how good it is for them!
• 500g watercress
• 200g pork (shourou 瘦肉)
• Half an arhat fruit (luohan guo 罗汉果)
• Thumb-sized piece of dried mandarin peel (chenpi 陈皮)
• 6 cups of water
Soak the dried mandarin peel in warm water until soft. Remove the peel from the water and scrape the inside of the peel with the blunt edge of a knife to remove the bitter pith.
Place the pork in a pot and add water. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a bare simmer. Leave to cook for one hour.
Add the arhat fruit, mandarin peel and watercress (whole), to the pork stock. If you like, add four dried, sweetened dates (mizao 蜜枣) for flavor – be sure to first rinse the crystallized sugar off the surface of the dates.
Bring the soup back to a high boil, then turn the heat down until barely simmering. Leave to stew for another forty minutes. Alternatively, place everything in a pressure cooker and leave to cook for one-and-a-half to two hours.
Ladle into serving bowls while hot and distribute the watercress evenly. The pork can be served separately, accompanied by soy sauce mixed with ground peppercorns (either white or Sichuan) for dipping.
This creamy soup is a simple-to-make French classic that the entire family can enjoy.
• 500g watercress
• 3 medium potatoes
• 4 cups of chicken stock
• 2 leeks (optional)
• Salt and pepper to taste
Peel and roughly chop the potatoes and leeks. Bring the stock to a boil and add the chopped potatoes and leeks. Let boil until the potatoes become very soft. Add the watercress and simmer for about three minutes or until just wilted. Place everything in a food processor and blend until smooth. The soup will be quite thick but can be made thinner by adding hot water. Return the puree to the pot to heat thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into serving bowls and drizzle sour cream or crème fraîche on the surface to garnish.