In toon with spring

By Pauline D Loh (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-03 09:22
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In toon with spring 

Chinese toon sprouts salad Photos by Pauline D Loh For China Daily

Warmer weather is nearly here, and tiny green leaves are sprouting with joyful abandon. But there is one tree that everyone watches with great interest, says Pauline D Loh

They are very rich in anti-oxidants and likely the only edible tree leaves known to North Asia. Chinese toon leaves (Toona sinensis), or xiang chun, must be one of the most popular seasonal vegetables in the country. It heralds the arrival of spring, regardless of the month and the taste of toon means warm weather is just around the corner.

Yet outside of China, it is hardly recognized and still very much a curiosity.

On my first visit to my mother-in-law's years ago, one of the dishes served at the dinner table was an omelet made with toon leaves. My mother-in-law had turned to me then and said: "You may find this strange, so don't force yourself if you don't like it."

I loved it immediately. It was intriguing. It was like nothing I had tasted before.

The aroma was, and still is, really hard to describe. It is herb-like in its fragrance, and combines a pungent roasted garlic aroma with maybe raw onions. Described this way, it hardly does credit to the vegetable but it really has to be tasted to be appreciated.

My next experiment was when I returned to Singapore with a stash of three fat bundles. My colleagues, all adventurous journalists, seemed intrigued enough by my description to want to try some. I decided to make a tofu and blanched toon salad for them - a classic cold dish.

To my surprise, everyone passed the test and joined the Beijing gourmands' club.

While on his American posting, my husband saw toon trees in Washington and missed home enough to pluck up both his courage and some shoots to test if they were edible. He was delighted to find they were, and risked the curious stares of passers-by when he clambered up the trunks, in pursuit of the more tender shoots. He ate toon salads regularly that spring, which assuaged his homesickness somewhat.

There are indeed two types of toon trees commonly found throughout the land. The "fragrant toon" and the "smelly toon" are both planted along roads and in gardens. The only difference is in the aroma of the shoots. Both have leaves that turn pink at the first sign of spring but only the fragrant toon is edible.

These shoots are very rich in nutrients and contain protein, Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin B1 and B2 as well as loads of lipids. The best variety is the dark pink or purple toon leaves which are crisp, crunchy and truly aromatic.

In the past two years, toon shoots have become the new micro-greens in Beijing restaurants. They're usually served tossed with a light vinaigrette of oil and lemon juice, and accompanied by blanched walnuts or thinly sliced bean-curd sheets. A horticulturist friend in Beijing says these shoots are sprouted from seeds and grown in punnets or trays in green houses.

These tiny fragile shoots are very delicate, and very different from the plump shoots of the tree itself, which are much more robust in flavor.

In our tiny back garden in Beijing, and also in our little villa in Kunming, we watch our toon trees like hungry wolves each spring. When the earth is finally warm enough, the shoots seem to sprout overnight, ready for harvesting. We usually plant more than a few trees so we can rotate the cropping each year.

Of course, there is always the market, but there is nothing as satisfying as harvesting your own. A word of warning, though: The Chinese toon is both an addictive and an acquired taste - just like the best French blue cheese or the pungent durian of Southeast Asia.

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