Monday, April 4, 2016

Indian asters in a delectable Shanghainese dish

We don’t have fresh aster leaves in any market I’ve visited, but I am hoping that will change as soon as news of this delightful and amazingly easy dish makes the rounds. These asters have a mild, herby flavor that reminds me a lot of edible chrysanthemums. But it is in no way overwhelming, which is probably why the folks in Shanghai love them dearly.

I've never been incredibly impressed with this dish whenever it's sold in restaurants. It's always relatively tasteless, too cold, too hard, and too boring. It falls apart easily into little shards, making it really difficult to transfer to your bowl, much less your mouth.

But it is completely different when made with care. Shanghainese friends make this into a delightful pile of confetti that just begs to be devoured. The greens are brightly colored and crunchy, the bean curd pillowy and savory, and the seasonings balanced just right. This is yet another one of those perfect dishes that is only good when you get the ratios absolutely right for both the main ingredients and the seasonings. Then, this coarsely chopped mixture looks like a beautifully marbled slab, and it sticks together in luscious clumps so that you can confidently pick it up with a spoon.

Frozen aster leaves

This is a deli food - what the Shanghainese call péntóucài 盆頭菜 - that is usually prepared at the beginning of the day and sold at the front of the restaurant as takeaway. And this particular dish is also known by the name xiānggān m
ălántóu 香乾馬蘭頭, which is just another way of saying pressed doufu with Indian asters. 

Today's recipe is therefore an ideal candidate for making ahead of when you need it, either for a family meal or as part of a banquet. At home, I serve it over hot rice with some mahogany slices of Smoky Mackerels (page TK), as then I have a nice contrast of dark and light, rich and delicate, spicy and refined. For a banquet, I just serve it as a molded mound for my guests to scoop into some small bowls; they can then use either small spoons or chopsticks to nibble on it.

You will find Indian asters in Chinese grocery stores that cater to more recent immigrants, rather than old-fashioned Cantonese stores. They will be in the frozen foods section alongside other things like bamboo shoots, fava beans, green soybeans, and so on. Get a couple bricks and stash them in your own freezer for a quick Shanghainese specialty in the near future.

Dicing up the bean curd
If you like to garden as much as me, search online for Indian aster plants, which are sometimes sold simply as malantou. Get these in fall if you live in a mild winter area, or early spring for colder areas, and plant them wherever it is sunny and well drained. The lovely lavender flowers will charm your eyes, while the tender shoots will reward you in years ahead with your own private, organic source.

Indian asters with pressed bean curd 
Mălántóu bàn dòugān 馬蘭頭拌豆乾
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

8 ounces/225g frozen Chinese aster leaves
2 squares/8 ounces/225g white pressed bean curd 
2 tablespoons green onion oil
1 tablespoon mushroom seasoning

1. If you have a whole pound block of the aster leaves (and you probably do), partially defrost it overnight in the refrigerator. Then, cut the block in half. Place one half in a colander and refreeze the other half. Rinse the asters under tap water to soften them, and then squeeze them dry like a sponge. Place the tender leaves on a cutting board and chop them finely. Scoop them into a medium microwave-safe work bowl and then microwave them for 1 minute on high.

2. Cut each square of the pressed bean curd horizontally into 4 thin strips before chopping it up into smallish squares. Cut across the squares haphazardly a few times so that you get a nice variety of shapes - none of the pieces should be more than ⅛ inch/25mm across. Scoop these all up with your knife and place them in the same bowl as the asters. Toss these lightly with the oil and mushroom seasoning. Microwave this again on high, this time for 2 minutes, tossing them gently halfway through. Taste and adjust the seasonings; the dish should be slightly over-seasoned, since it will be served cold. Cool the mixture to room temperature.

Seriously delicious
3. Line a 2-cup container with an interesting shape with a sheet of plastic wrap. Scrape the aster mixture into the container and press it down gently but firmly so that everything sticks more or less together. Cover the container and chill the aster mixture for at least a couple of hours.

4. To serve, peel back the top of the plastic wrap and place a flat plate over the container. Quickly flip it over. Remove the container and the plastic wrap. Place a serving spoon next to it so that it can be easily enjoyed.


  1. I just found your blog and I'm SO delighted. I'm an ABC with parents raised in Taiwan. Dad's family's from Nanjing, Mom's from Shenyang, and us kids were raised in Boston (good Canto and a few pops of good Taiwanese too) in the 80s-90s with trips to Taipei. I also live in the Bay Area and have been so frustrated at the lack of good restaurant options here because I didn't learn much from my parents. (Mom herself was raised mostly by servants and seems not to have learned how to cook much good stuff and now she's a vegan who eschews alliums due to Buddhism). I'm over the moon at the breadth and detail in your blog. You've really inspired me!

    1. That is one of the kindest things anyone has ever written here. Thank you so much, Juli!

      I'm so thrilled when I can in some small way help young Chinese Americans connect with their families' cultural traditions. I think no matter what culture we find ourselves in, we all have a responsibility to help preserve the knowledge that was passed down for generations. I was really fortunate to have wonderful cooks as friends (plus my beloved father-in-law) who taught me so much.

      I hope that this blog (and the upcoming cookbooks) bring you lots of happiness. Thanks again for taking the time to write!

  2. Thank you so much for posting a photo of the frozen product! I've tried making this at home with fresh Garland chrysanthemum (tong ho), and did not find the flavor as appealing as The frozen Indian Aster served at a few restaurants in the Bay Area.

    1. My pleasure! Mum leaves would definitely be overpowering here. Hope you enjoy the recipe.