One afternoon in April, our family spent a few hours climbing around the Great Wall in Huanghuacheng. We parked our car near a farmhouse occupied by a generous, elderly couple. They never fail to present us gifts of their own dried fruit or nuts whenever we pass through there. This one particular day as we finished our hike, the wife handed me a large grocery bag full of strong-smelling, pointy leaves in green and purple. I had to ask what they were. “Xiangchun,” she told me, which in English we call toon. She had just picked them especially for us.
I must admit I was pleased, a feeling I know may not be widely shared. Toon is oddly divisive: people either find it absolutely revolting or positively adore it. I am firmly among the latter, though I cannot quite articulate what I taste when I eat it. Is it peppery or herbal? All I can say is that I was bowled over the first time I tried a cold salad of toon and walnuts, and it remains one of my absolute favorite dishes in Beijing, one I order all the time.
However, most restaurants make this and every other toon dish using greenhouse-grown toon, an adorable little two-leaf sprout that is available any time of year. Wild toon is completely different looking, and much tastier. I had long been curious to try wild toon to compare and get a sense of this old flavor of springtime in Beijing. Curiosity alone was never going to procure me any wild toon, though. The best wild toon, I had heard, has to be gathered during a very limited time in spring when the Chinese mahogany tree first bursts with new growth. I am not a skilled forager, and I wouldn’t recognize a Chinese mahogany tree, let alone the sprouts.
I couldn’t believe my luck; wild toon at last!
That afternoon I couldn’t believe my luck; wild toon at last! In the car, I confessed to my husband my worry that maybe the whole bag would go to waste. I had no idea how to prepare them. He suggested that since we were already going to Kui Po (a favorite Huanghuacheng restaurant I wrote about in the January, 2014 issue of beijingkids), maybe they could tell us how to serve the leaves.
When we arrived at Kui Po with our wild toon, the owner asked with surprise if we had gathered these ourselves. I told her we had actually just been given them, and that I was hoping she could teach us how to cook them. When I said to her we had never even eaten wild toon before, only the variety served in restaurants in the city, she shook her head in pity.
“That kind is terrible,” she told us. “Wild is so much better.”
She quickly brought to our table xiangchun fixed two ways: folded into an omelette and batter-dipped. We were amazed but not surprised how deftly she improvised these, even though neither were on her menu. It was all delicious. Myles and Brigid especially enjoyed the crispy-coated leaves.
My own amateur attempts to fix wild toon in these same ways later that week did not measure up to Kui Po’s. I tried, too, to share our bounty with friends and neighbors, but I was met with polite and slightly disgusted refusals. This taste of Beijing spring was, as I suspected, not for everyone.
Photo: Michael Coghlan (Flickr)