This Sunday afternoon we had decent air quality and good weather, so we drove up to the Huanghuacheng area for some Great Wall. There was one section we hadn’t been to in about a year, so it was about time to visit it again.
It’s a small piece that people usually cross as part of a larger day-long Huanghuacheng hike. We park our car at a small farm near it, and take a short walk up the road they control (and charge to enter) to reach it.
When we got back to the car, the elderly farmers had a present for us. They often do, since we do go there with some regularity. Usually it is dried fruit or nuts, but this time it was an enormous bag of freshly picked toon leaves.
Wild toon (香椿 xiāngchūn)is something strongly associated with local Beijing cuisine in springtime, but I have to confess that in five years I never tried them. Part of the reason is that I wouldn’t even know how or where to forage for them. The other is that thanks to modern agriculture, I can enjoy toon all year round in my favorite preparation, so I don’t have some sort of seasonal drive to seek out the wild toon.
I was really grateful, and we thanked them for such a great treat. In the car, though, to Randy I admitted that I was afraid these were wasted on us. What on earth would we do with them?
Randy’s idea was brilliant. Since we were going to Kui Po for supper, maybe they could help us out. Maybe they would even cook them for us.
They were more than happy to take our loot into their kitchen and feed us traditional spring flavors. When I had told them that we had never had wild toon before, only city restaurant toon, they smiled.
"That kind is terrible!" they declared. "Wild is so much better!"
We had toon two ways.
Battered and fried
and in an omelet.
Both were quite good. The kids (yes, even Brigid!) ate them, favoring the batter-dipped over the omelet. I tried to discern if I liked them better than the cultivated variety I’ve eaten many times before. I could tell the difference, sort of, but I couldn’t determine a preference. Randy was amused how similar in flavor these big, point, purple leaves were to the small, round, green sprouts with which we are familiar.
I tried to get a feel, too, how toon could taste like springtime. Since I was already used to eating them any time of year, I wondered if that prevented me from making a strong connection. I thought about Spargelzeit, the weeks in spring in which asparagus is harvested in Germany. Last spring we were eating our weight in asparagus, filling our stomachs with that taste of spring. Asparagus, like toon, is something we can eat any time of year any more. There’s something, though, about celebrating a food at its proper time.
This post first appeared on Jennifer Ambrose’s site on April 28, 2014.
Jennifer Ambrose hails from Western Pennsylvania and misses it terribly. She still maintains an intense devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers. She has lived in China since 2006 and is currently an at-home mother. With her husband Randy and children Myles and Brigid, she resides outside the Sixth Ring Road in Changping, northwest of Beijing
Photos courtesy of Jennifer Ambrose