Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Two Chinese seasonal treats: chive flowers & Taiwanese muskmelons

Today we're taking a brief break from south-central China's spicy cuisines to introduce a pair of seasonal delights: Chinese chive flowers and a little jade-colored fruit the Taiwanese called "fragrant melon," or xianggua.

First up are the melons. These beautiful little 4-inch fruits are at the peak of their short season now, and I am hoping to turn more people on to their very existence, not to mention their deep perfume. 

The only English name I've found for them is "mush melon," which never made a whole lot of sense and is truly derogatory, since the fruits are just like solid honeydews as far as texture is concerned.

But then one day it hit me when I was smelling them and thought how darkly musky their fragrance was: I realized that the problem was that the translation had been a mite sloppy, and their true name should be "musk" (not mush) melon.

Of course, there are tons of fruits with the same name, so I think a good translation would be "Taiwanese muskmelons."
Taiwanese muskmelons

When I lived in Taiwan, these were what were always prescribed by Chinese mothers for bouts of constipation (which happens about 50% of the time to the local newcomers; the other 50% of the time one is dealing with the opposite problem). 

The Chinese have a saying: shui tu bufu, which means that one is not used to the water and soil, which leads to digestive upsets. 

Whenever this happened to one of us students, whichever Chinese family we lived with would tell us to eat whole muskmelons -- seeds, juice, peel, and all -- until the problem passed. And it usually did with a massive rush of fiber.

Peel and slice
To really enjoy these late summer fruits, though, they should be peeled and seeded. The flesh is truly aromatic and tasty, and although there are all sorts of ways to tart them up, the best way is the simplest: peel, seed, slice, and eat. Chilled or room temperature is up to you.

When you shop for these melons, dig around for the heaviest ones, as these are the juiciest. The skin should be a pale green with few dark spots, as that indicates over-ripening. The same with skins that are turning yellow: pass those over, as they received too much sun and are most likely turning soft. 

Pick up the melon and gently squeeze it; it should have little give, and the base of the fruit should only have the barest flexibility, sort of like the blade of a plastic knife. And then smell the fruit: the aroma should be enticing.
As is, they're fantastic too

These can then sit on the kitchen counter out of the sun for a few days; more than that and they should be refrigerated.

Taiwanese muskmelons are also great in cold desserts like Sweet Coconut Tapioca Soup, where they look like jade shards against the sea of white. 

They are also delicious chopped into half-inch dice and tossed with sweetened red beans or other contrasting dessert-type ingredients. Or, whip them up in a blender with some ice milk and drop a couple tablespoons of the large cooked tapioca balls called boba for a very Taiwanese treat. Stick a wide straw in the glass and chill out. You just can't go wrong with these lovely little green balls. 

The second unusual bit of produce comes from the other end of the aisle in the veggie section: Chinese chive flowers, or 韭菜花  jiucaihua.

If you have only gotten acquainted with regular old Chinese chives, you need to get to know two more variations on this theme: these flowers, and the yellow chives that are grown under tall pots to blanch them and make the chives both mild and exceedingly tender. We'll talk about the yellow chives (韭黃 jiuhuang) some other time. Today it's all about the flowers.

Chopped flower stems
First of all, when it comes to using this vegetable as an ingredient, the blossoms themselves are really no more than an afterthought. What you really are going to enjoy are the long, slender stalks that these little flower buds balance upon. Just like the leaves (which are what Chinese chives are, after all), these have a mild garlic-onion-leek flavor. But there the similarities end.

Where the leaves are sharp in flavor, the stems are almost sweet. The leaves are relatively dry, but the stems are juicy. The leaves stick to each other, while the stems stay perky and proud, even when chopped.

The best way to enjoy chive flowers is to quickly stir-fry them with nothing more than a touch of oil and a sprinkle of salt. They cook in less than a minute and should be just barely done so that the stems are still crunchy, but have no raw onion taste. Then serve as is, or as a border around some main dish. You will get no complaints.

Simply stir-fried: perfection incarnate
Select chive flowers with tightly closed buds, which shows that the flowers have not passed their peak. The stem bottoms should look fresh and sprightly, and you should also be able to easily cut into the bottom inch or so of the stems with your thumbnail; if not, the stems will be tough and you'll have to cut off a big portion of the ends before you have something tender to eat.

Chive flowers should be wrapped in plastic with a damp paper towel around the base of the bouquet. (They are flowers, after all.) Use them within a few days before they lose their freshness and aroma.

Enjoy the last few weeks of summer with these two Chinese delights. You can even grow them from seed if you live in the right climate. Many Chinese grocery stores carry seed packets, and chives in particular are easy to produce even in pots on a balcony.

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