Spring inspires Chinese chefs with its diversity of fresh, delectable produce. Greens and vegetables are fragrant and tender when they start growing. Aquatic animals become rich and store fat in preparation for spawning.
Despite the abundance of food, people should pay attention to their diet in springtime and avoid eating the wrong foods at the wrong time, according to traditional Chinese medicine experts.
In springtime, yang (warm) energy begins to rise in the universe and in the human body, which can sometimes cause too much heat and dryness. Rains can cause internal damp. Foods should create internal balance.
Spring is also the season for the liver and it’s important to nourish that organ system. It is believed the liver stores blood, supports the heart and creates and maintains a smooth flow of qi (energy) in body and mind.
“Spring is filled with changes in both the weather and people themselves. Eating randomly without any health considers can undermine how people adapt themselves to changed conditions. It may lead to various physical discomforts,” says Dr Zhou Duan, director of the TCM Internal Medicine Department of Longhua Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.
Eating right during springtime is based on three major principles: generally following jie qi (Chinese solar terms), eating seasonal ingredients and nourishing the liver, according to Dr Zhou.
Jie qi (节气), the 24 periods in the traditional Chinese solar system, are used to indicate changes of season and weather and were important signs in an ancient agrarian society, indicating when to plant, for example.
Spring is divided into six solar terms, starting from Li Chun (the beginning of spring 立春) and ending with Gu Yu (grain rain 谷雨).
Jie qi marks the climate change of spring, from cold to warm, dry to moist.
“TCM believes eating the right food in the right jie qi helps people adapt to changes in weather and, hence, maintain harmony between the body and nature,” Dr Zhou explains.
For example, it’s important to supply food with yang nature during cold weather; to eat nourishing, moistening foods in the dry season, and eat food with yin (cool) nature to remove dampness and clear internal heat during warm, rainy days.
Following solar terms too rigorously is not necessary; they are guidelines. For example, the solar term Jing Zhe (awakening of insects 惊蛰) started on March 5 this year, the recommended time to eat more pears to promote moisture in the body. That doesn’t mean pears are less healthful shortly before the solar term, and after it.
Climate and weather are less predictable than in the past because of global warming. Diet should be flexible if warm weather comes early or rain is delayed.
In general, eating seasonal foods benefits the health and they taste better when they are in season. According to the earliest text of TCM, compiled more than 2,000 years ago, food freshly picked in spring has absorbed the essence of earth and heaven and thus is beneficial. “Huang Di Nei Jing” (“The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon”) sets out guidelines for healthy eating and living throughout the year.
Fresh greens also have a distinctive, appealing fragrance, says Cailong Xu, Chinese chef de cuisine at the Fairmont Peace Hotel.
In spring it is also recommended to eat more foods with a gan (sweet 甘) nature to nourish the lungs, says Dr Zhou. Gan doesn’t only mean foods that taste sweet, but also those that benefit the spleen and stomach, which help the circulation of gan qi, the vital energy in the lungs. Jujubes, yams, and pumpkin are all foods with gan nature.
Shanghai Daily picks five solar terms in spring — Li Chun, Yu Shui (rain water 雨水), Jing Zhe, Chun Fen (vernal equinox 春分) and Qing Ming (clear and bright 清明) — and identifies the seasonal foods that are especially beneficial for each term.
Li Chun — Wu xin (five spices 五辛)
Li Chun, February 5 this year, marks the beginning of spring, when yang energy rises in the universe, stimulating everything to grow.
“Foods with a spicy nature generate yang, vitalize people and help them to recover qi and dispel coldness in body left from the winter,” says Dr Zhou.
Following TCM theory, Chinese used to serve wu xin pan (五辛盘), a five-spice plate usually combining raw Chinese chives, ginger, garlic, spring union and pepper, to supply yang and thus strengthen the metabolism.
Chinese chives, with a strong garlic odor, are typically stir-fried with egg or made into the filling of jiao zi (饺子), a kind of rice dumpling. The other four are used to flavor spring greens and vegetables, to enrich the flavor and enhance the aroma.
Yu Shui — wild greens
Yu Shui, February 18 this year, is when the temperature begins to rise, ice melts and rain increases. When the air turns wet and warm, dampness and “toxic fire” can be accumulated in the body.
Various wild greens with yin nature are recommended to clear heat and resolve dampness during the changing weather.
Popular cooking greens include xiang chun (Chinese toon 香椿), ma lan tou (kalimeris or Indian aster 马兰头), ji cai (shepherd’s purse 芥菜), gou qi ye (boxthorn leaf 枸杞叶) and ju hua ye (a kind of chrysanthemum 菊花叶). Those growing wild in mountain areas and by rivers have a distinctive intense aroma, from herbal to floral and grassy. Most have a slightly bitter taste.
Wild greens are best picked from late February through late March. Preparing wild herb dishes is challenging because chefs need to remove the bitterness, while retaining the taste, fragrance and tender texture.
Wild greens are usually prepared with mild ingredients to highlight their natural aroma, according to chef Xu from the Fairmont Peace Hotel.
Classical dishes include shredded ma lan tou mixed with shredded dried bean curd (sugar is added to remove bitterness), xiang chun stir-fried with egg (Chinese version of black truffle with egg), ji cai stewed with tofu.
Besides, radish, adlay and white gourd, are recommended to dispel damp.
Jing Zhe — time for pears
Jing Zhe is characterized by frequent thunderstorms and the emergence of insects from hibernation, hence the name “insects awake.” Temperatures rise, rain then decreases and the air becomes dry. Some people experience dry cough and itchy throat, as well as a dry mouth.
Pears are recommended to nourish yin, cleanse the lungs and moisten the body. They can be eaten raw, steamed with chuan bei (Fritillaria bulb, lily family 川贝) and served with crystal sugar as a dessert soup. Pear juice with honey is added.
Chun Fen — time for bamboo shoots
This is the vernal equinox, March 20 this year, when the sun is directly above the equator and days and nights are equal in length. TCM holds that ying and yang energy circulating between earth and heaven on that day achieve balance between warm and cold, dry and moist.
For people with a “damp heat” constitution, food that nourishes yin and “resolve” damp are recommended. For people with a yin constitution, warming yang foods are recommended.
This is the prime season for bamboo shoots, which are tender, sweet and have a mild fragrance.
Chef Xu at the Fairmont Peace Hotel says that although bamboo shoots are cold (yin) in nature, they are suitable for people with different constitutions and can be combined with greens, meats, river fish and aquatic food.
Local chefs typically braise bamboo shoots with pork in soy sauce, stir-fry them with spring onions or river eel, and stew them with ham and pork rib.
Qing Ming — time for aquatic food
Starting from Qing Ming (April 4 this year), the temperature rises significantly and rain is frequent. Removing dampness and heat is the TCM principle.
This is also the season for various freshwater foods, including fish, shrimp, snails and clams. At this time, aquatic animals are active, preparing for spawning and filled with nutrition. Most river foods are yin in nature, balancing yang or heat.
Some saltwater fish migrate to the Yangtze River around Qing Ming, such as dao yu (a wild bony fish 刀鱼), deadly but tasty he tun (puffer fish), and yellow croaker. These fish have both the tender texture of river food and the silky mouthfeel of seafood, according to chef Zhou Hanming, restaurant chef at Y2C2, a Chinese restaurant featuring modern Cantonese cuisine.
Fresh water shrimp can be marinated in Chinese rice wine and served directly, stir-fried with spring onion and ginger or braised in soy sauce. Fish is often simply steamed or made into soup to highlight its natural, mild flavor.
Latest spring flavors
• Mixed bamboo shoots with spring onions
This is a light dish with a refreshing, clean taste and rich textures. Besides crispy bamboo shoots, crunchy green lettuce is added. Spring onion adds more flavor and aroma to the mild bamboo shoots.
• Wok-fried bamboo shoot with river eel
The mild bamboo shoots absorb flavor from the eel and its natural sweetness cuts through the fattiness of the eel.
Where to order:
Venue: Dragon Phoenix, Fairmont Peace Hotel, 8/F, 20 Nanjing Rd E.
• Tossed xiang chun greens with tofu and scallop
Mild tofu gives the dish more textures while not overpowering the natural fragrance of xiang chun (Chinese toon). The umami scallop balances the slight bitterness of the wild toon.
• Wok-fried ji cai greens with lily bulbs and mushroom
This dish features rich textures and light flavors. It also nourishes yin energy. Ji cai (shepherd’s purse), with a tender, fiber-like texture, goes well with crispy lily bulb and silky mushroom. The sweetness of the lily bulb balances the slightly herbal taste of ji cai.
Where to order:
Venue: Xindalu China Kitchen, Hyatt on the Bund, 1/F, 199 Huangpu Rd
• Yellow croaker soup
Small croaker is stewed with the spinach, giving the soup taste both the clean freshness of the greens and the rich taste of the fish.
Where to order:
Venue: Y2C2, 5/F, Bldg 2, Shanghai Wharf Warehouse, 579 Waima Rd
Customs involving spring solar terms
Li Chun On this day, farmers used to shape a clay cow, called a “spring cow.” A respected elder whips the cow three times, symbolizing the beginning of spring when fields are to be plowed. This dates from the time when oxen or cattle pulled plows. Children fly kites in the warm, spring breeze.
Yu Shui In western China, married daughters used to return to their parent’s home with gifts to express their gratitude.
Jing Zhe Various beans and peas are fried and the loud popping sounds of the skins bursting is believed to scare hibernating insects away.
Chun Fen On this day people try to balance a raw egg to mark the vernal equinox. It is believed that at this time balance and harmony are achieved between earth and heaven.
Qing Ming People go outside with their families to appreciate spring flowers and grass. Chinese also visit ancestor’s graves, sweeping away the dirt, making offerings, and mourning the dead.