Stir-fried mustard greens with dried daylilies, or golden needles. (Photo Provided to China Daily)
Editor's Note: Traditional and fusion cooking styles, regional and international ingredients and a new awareness of healthy eating are all factors contributing to an exciting time for Chinese cuisine.
One of the vegetables largely associated with Chinese cuisine is the humble mustard green, caixin or choy sum.
In Chinese, its name translates as "heart of the vegetable", which hints at its tenderness and flavor. But it is still mostly relegated to a supporting role - as the greens in a bowl of noodles, or the garnish lining a plate of braised meats.
It really deserves more prominence on the dining table. In this respect, the southern Chinese do much better, since they are more familiar with this native vegetable.
Once, I was asked what cooking skills I would look for in a prospective daughter-in-law. There was no hesitation as I rattled off a list: A perfectly cooked bowl of rice, steamed fish, Cantonese-style, and a platter of stir-fried mustard greens.
Mustard greens must be stir-fried with enough heat to lock in the juices so they stay crisp but do not taste raw and green. They must be salted just enough to draw out the natural sweetness and have that optimum amount of oil to lacquer the vegetables with a sheen, but not be overly greasy. An art in itself.
Once, in Chengdu, I had a bowl of clear soup which was labeled "white-cooked vegetables" on the menu. There was a tiny shoot of caixin floating in what looked like hot water. In this case, it was pure artifice.
The liquid was actually a crystal-clear condensed chicken consomme, full of flavor, and the caixin in it was the perfect foil with its tender leaves and crisp, sweet stem.
Mustard greens grow in all seasons, especially in the southern provinces where the plant flourishes best. But it is in the last months of the lunar year that it comes into its fullest glory.
The vegetable enjoys the cold and responds to the chilly nights with bright green shoots that are sugar-sweet.