Two women select jicai at a market in Wudi county, Shandong province. Chen Ziqing / For China Daily
Every year, when spring arrives stealthily and most vegetables are still growing in greenhouses, jicai (shepherd's purse) is already there in the wild, waiting to excite your senses with its natural green color and fresh aroma.
For several days, jicai has been eagerly sought: Every day all of the baskets filled with the wild vegetable were emptied at the market near my home.
"I bought these at 2 yuan for each kilogram," my mum said one day last week while cleaning the herbal leaves. "I will go to the field to collect some tomorrow."
Mum's words took me back to my childhood when I was at primary school. The memory of digging jicai is still fresh in my mind.
Once spring comes, especially in late March and early April, my classmates and I flocked to the wheat field to search for jicai after school.
With a small iron tool such as spoon or shovel, you can easily get jicai out of the soil, and if you get close to it, you will be intoxicated by the fresh smell from both its leaves and the wet soil stuck to its root.
Usually it took us no more than half an hour to fill our school bags with the wild vegetable.
Before handing in the harvest to our mums, we liked to find a place to get them out of our bag and to see who got the most. We would then pull off any withered leaves.
I was always so proud to hand in so much jicai to my mum, because I knew all the members of my family like it very much.
Jicai can be eaten both raw and cooked. It can be used to stuff dumplings - the most popular - and buns, and cook into a soup.
Some people prefer to eat jicai raw. They eat it with a little seasoning or dip it in bean sauce. This keeps jicai's original flavor, both slightly bitter and sweet.
Many foods will become delicious when paired with jicai.
When you process jicai, it's good to keep the root - which tastes quite good.
Besides adding fresh flavor to dishes, jicai has a traditional medical function: to stop bleeding. Mum told me it works well even though I never tried it for this purpose.
Nowadays, jicai can be cultivated in special conditions all year. But it's the moment of digging jicai that is special.
The wild plant brings you close to nature and gives you a chance to smell spring.