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Sprigs of spring

(China Daily)

14:22, February 16, 2013

Spring vegetables create edible art and the Chinese character "chun".(Photos by Fan Zhen / China Daily)

Green buds and shoots are the best indication that the earth is waking and warming up. For human omnivores, it is also time to enjoy the first spring greens. Pauline D. Loh presents a shopping guide, recipes and reasons why you should eat more baby vegetables.

Eat local? Reduce food miles? Grow your own sprouts and shoots. As long as you have a sunny window ledge that is bright and breezy, it's a piece of cake. Okay, to be accurate, it's a little patch of green.

The Californians started it, of course. The Beautiful People of the Sunshine Coast were the first to make it a momentary fad, as they have done with every little known and healthy plant, bud, fruit, nut and root ranging from alfalfa sprouts, inch-high coriander shoots to gingko nuts, Amazon acai berries, tropical noni juice to what they insist on calling Tibetan goji berries.

Thankfully, in China, fads are not as transient, and the markets are glowing with green as the thermometer gradually climbs higher and the snow patches melt into sparkling puddles in the sun.

Chinese chefs have always known the delights of shoots and sprouts. Mung bean sprouts are pretty indispensable in every Chinese kitchen, especially in the milder half of the country south of the Yangtze River, where they are added to stir-fries and noodles with equal abandon. Further south in Guangdong province, they are even more treasured.

The tender shoots of peas, sugar snaps, silky gourd and even pumpkins and bitter melons are often harvested and sold in little bundles as supplementary crops.

Back in the kitchen, home chefs would sizzle up some rendered chicken fat and toss the shoots over high heat - a technique so simple it takes years to master. The shoots must be cooked, but still be bright green, crunchy sweet and barely wilted.

And then, there is the uniquely Chinese toon shoots.

The Chinese toon is a towering tree that can be seen on almost every street corner from Beijing to Yunnan province.

In winter, it sheds its leaves but as soon as the sun gets it warmed up, it sends out bunches of deep maroon-tinged shoots which are quickly harvested by its eager human neighbors.

It's a wonder there are still toon trees around that are not permanently stunted by this springtime massacre.

Toon shoots are an acquired taste which separates the men from the boys, the acclimatized from the novice to China. Its pungency can be overpowering, but once you like it, you love it.

Now, enterprising farmers have started raising toon sprouts as well, from the winged black seeds of the tree, in the best traditions of the Californian micro-salads. It is now a permanent fixture on most modern Chinese menus, often served dressed with a lemony dressing and ornamented by blanched fresh walnuts or shredded tofu sheets. And it is more mildly favored and easily accepted

In the markets, what used to be a solely Shanghainese fixation seems to have spread out to the rest of the country. Baby vegetables.

Spinach plants that are short of 10 cm tall, mustard greens or Chinese greens (cai xin) that are barely the same height, and baby bok choy, which my vegetable vendor calls "chicken feather vegetables", are all popular. Indeed, they are all no longer than the average roster wing feather.

What is this new fascination with short sprouts?

Well, for one, farmers have decided they might as well sell the first cull after the seedlings are planted, and they have found it so popular that they are now harvesting the vegetables when they are mere teenagers.

There is, apparently, scientific rationale for our preference for young shoots. They are tender, taste better and more nutritious. They are easily digested, phytonutrient-rich and low on the glycaemic index, with better levels of vitamins and antioxidants, according to nutritionists.

Here are a few reasons why sprouts, buds and shoots are good for you.

Experts say they are very rich in enzymes, about 100 times more than the full-grown versions. Enzymes are the building block carriers that help you absorb vitamins, minerals and amino acids better.

The protein in beans, seeds and grains or cereals are improved when they are soaked in the sprouting process, especially the amino acids that help the body maintain a healthy immune system. So, eating sprouts in spring helps you battle the seasonal sniffles.

There is also lots of fiber in sprouts, and we all know that we need fiber to lose some of the accumulated winter fat so you can show some skin when summer arrives all too soon.

Baby vegetables are rich in vitamins, especially when the first leaves show, and in the cotyledons themselves, that store of fat in the seeds that swell and sustain the young sapling.

The humble bean sprouts, for example, are incredibly rich in vitamin B, and niacin, and they are a crucial store of fatty acids, those fat-burners that we need to sear away extra blubber in the body.

And, if you are an eco-conscious consumer, here is the final persuasion.

Sprouts are almost always locally grown, even in these days of the logistics superhighway. Better still, they are easy to grow at home, and sprouting kits are available online. Just remember those first botany lessons in junior school when you soaked beans and peas in waterlogged cotton.

In all, these first spring greens are very good for you. So you should pick up your re-usable shopping bag and head for the market or supermarket right now.

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