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Herb Your Enthusiasm

back to May-June Issue
by Katya Lensky

On the way to go shopping with Jennifer we noticed sakura in bloom with its fragrant scent, singing out “Spring is here.” It opens a new season of possibilities for our kitchens, and dining in general. As you may know, western style cuisine in particular Italian, French and Mediterranean dishes, include a great variety of fragrance mostly derived from herbs. Most of us are used to having a nice selection of herbs in the stores back home. However, in Dalian, we face a different situation: the herbs we are looking for are only sold in one or two stores around Dalian, but can be substituted by the local herbs.

Jennifer is always in search for new places to buy interesting things. Just recently she discovered a rather interesting outlet at Sanba market selling herbs and specialty produce; fresh herbs are hard to find in Dalian. The owner, Mr. Chen Gui You and his lovely wife Zhao Wie, grow locally and imports produce and herbs regularly from all over China, mostly from the south. As a true gourmet cook Jennifer likes to experiment, so we decided to take a peek into the shop and see what was available for the season.

Jennifer owns The Riviera Restaurant, located next door to the Shangri-La hotel, a place where you can experience true gourmet cuisine. Gourmet cooking has been her passion for many years and brought her a massive amount of knowledge about anything related to food. She has also been an expat for more than 20 years, so she understands the concept of shopping for produce in a foreign country and finding what she needs for both of her kitchens: her home and her restaurant at the best possible price. We join Jennifer every other month to go shopping and learn the art of shopping for food.

The herb shop located in the grounds of the Sanba market area is hardly noticeable to a foreigner’s eye as the sign is in Chinese characters, in pinyin you would pronounce it; guiyou shu cai. As we walked into the shop we saw a rather compact container store with huge neatly stacked selections of various produce. Some of the items we saw, neither of us had seen before. There were also vegetables we did recognize, only of a different variety, brought from other regions of China. After trying several vegetables, and asking the Mr. Chen its origin, we had a better idea on what’s going on here. Jenifer’s eye immediately picked out a few items that could be used in her restaurant. Cucumber flowers, especially grown for the bloom would be a beautiful addition to a green salad. It is sold for 15RMB per jin, it may get cheaper in the summer months. Its Chinese name is huang gua hua, you can easily recognize it when you see it with its delicate yellow flower attached to a tiny cucumber. There were several vegetables in that shop that made Jennifer jump with excitement: she found a purple sweet potato from Guang Zhou that is great mashed or dried as a colorful chip on a plate, about 5 RMB per jin. There was a interesting variety of eggplant called hang que zi, extremely long and skinny. While the flavor is similar to the local Dalian variety the skin is thinner and more tender therefore suitable for steamed dishes and salads, expect to pay about 6-7 RMB per jin. For those of us who know that fresh mint grows very easily and abundantly back home, the price is a little steep at 5 RMB per 100gm, but what to do when you fancy a refreshing mojtio or to add great little kick to your black tea when dried. Cherry yellow tomatoes for 6 RMB per jin. Another vegetable which made Jennifer glow, about 8 rmb per jin. The prize of the day was finding the fennel bulb, pair this with fish or as a compliment to a meat or pasta dish and the flavors will burst in your mouth. To our disappointment we didn’t find any parsley, basil, rosemary or thyme. The owner’s answer to our question “why don’t you sell some” was simple: we will plant in the summer months.

After scanning the shelves and finding a few more interesting products, like pickled mushrooms, lotus root, orchids, strange looking leafs and plants, we pinched some of them off for the degustation menu. When Jennifer asked the owner to grow some Italian herbs for her, he was kind enough to agree and promised to try. More details to come in the next issue. On the way back we drove by the sakura trees again thinking that we should add its flowers to our salad as well since in Japan these very same flowers are pickled in salt and vinegar, sounds like a great combination, right?


Read more articles from these series:
Gone Fisin'
October-Novemer Issue