I traveled to the mountains of Sichuan to forage for fish mint, a culinary delicacy and prized ingredient in Chinese medicine whose name is derived from the fishy aroma the leaves emit.
In the United States, fish mint—or houttunynia cordata—is considered an invasive species. Most often found near stream edges and wet woodlands, it's a difficult plant to get rid of because it spreads via rhizomes. In gardening forums across the West, there are threads dedicated to the eradication of the weed. You can identify it by its signature heart shape, white flowers, and slightly purple underbelly.
In southwest China, fish mint is a culinary delicacy and a prized ingredient in Chinese medicine. Its name is derived from the fishy aroma the leaves emit; it was traditionally used for a cure for pneumonia and a means to combat phlegm.
"It's a polarizing dish here in Sichuan. You either hate it or love it," Jordan Porter says. Porter is the owner of Chengdu Food Tours, a boutique food tour agency in Sichuan. A Canadian transplant, he has been in Sichuan for the last six years and speaks fluent Chinese. "In Guizhou, they chop up the roots into tiny pieces and use that as a condiment in all of their food. In Sichuan and Yunnan, the roots and leaves are made into salads." The leaves are also utilized in Japanese and Vietnamese cooking.
Porter has taken me two hours out of the city to the home of Wenjun Zhang, a farmer who lives in the small village of Hongzhi in Jiulong Gou Scenic Area. The village is southwest of Chengdu, up narrow roads in the thick of the mountains and bamboo forests. The place used to be a habitat for panda bears, and the government had tried to make it into a tourist destination until the 2008 Sichuan earthquake hit and shattered the region.
Up the roads, a series of abandoned buildings sit side-by-side near occupied residences. The ruins are the products of the earthquake. We sneak into one that used to be a hotel and see large boulders sitting in the lobby—rocks that presumably crashed through the walls when the earth shook for two minutes in May of 2008. Moss and vegetation creep up on all sides of the destroyed building; there's a young tree growing freely on the rooftop. The scene is a testament to the persistence of vegetation in this part of China. Growth is inescapable in Sichuan; constant humidity and rain make it one of the most fertile regions in the country.
"The official death toll was around 90,000, but if you talk to anyone around here, they'll put the numbers to at least double that," Porter says. The earthquake was one of the most devastating in human history, in terms of socioeconomic losses.
"Part of our house was destroyed," Zhang says. Most of his residence is visibly new, and despite the devastation in the area, Zhang does relatively well for himself. His family lives completely off the land and for income, his home doubles as a bed and breakfast for city visitors and an occasional restaurant. We meet a group of Chengdu locals who, like us, have made the trek up to Zhang's residence to relax. But unlike us, they intend to spend the entire day playing mahjong.
They're holding clusters of plants in their hands that they have acquired on their morning walk: a Chinese wormwood called qinghao, jiaogulan (commonly referred to as southern ginseng), plantago asiatica (used for liver disease), and fish mint, known in Sichuan as zhe'ergen.
"Zhe'ergen is good for the lungs and the throat," one of them says. "Alleviates congestion."
Zhang takes us on a foraging hike and for two hours, we're in the deep of the forest on a steep impromptu trail carved out by Zhang and his machete. The route is incredibly muddy and at times, laced with thorns. It's a trek full of surprises and we encounter mud pools made by wild pigs and the remnants of a temple that was pillaged for its precious stones after the earthquake. There's not much left at the site, except a couple of eerie statues. A rotting plaque at the site indicates that the name of the temple is Xian Tai Shan and that it was built in 1914—nearly a century ago.
All around the ruins, fish mint is in abundance and flowering. Zhang instructs us not to pull off the roots; the season for that is in the spring, not summer. Prematurely harvesting the roots of the fish mint will ruin next year's harvest.
As food, the roots are usually chopped into bite-size pieces and tossed with cilantro and peppers. They're woody and bitter with a musky ginger undertone. The leaves are served as a salad with chili oil and soy sauce.
We also find an abundance of qinghao—a bitter wormwood that's fantastic for digestion. It is also known within Chinese medicine circles to be a cure for malaria. There's also wild celery, bamboo shoots, ejiaoban (a plant that directly translates to "goosefoot" in English), and qingya, which just means "young vegetable" but is actually the young leaves of a tree. Qingya has a distinct savory aroma.
It's difficult to pinpoint the scientific names for some of the greens we encounter. Most of the names are colloquialisms. Like most country dwellers, Zhang's knowledge of the plants is based off of local folklore.
That, however, does not diminishes his expertise. Amid a sea of green, we watch him quickly and wordlessly identify and pluck out what he needs. It's mesmerizing to watch and I find myself envying his ability to find food in this verdant abundance. At times, we give it a try but accidently pick out inedible weeds.
For dinner, Zhang kills a rooster for us and marinates it in a brine of chili oil, salt, chicken essence, and douban—a paste made with fermented broad beans and chili peppers. The cock is grilled over a fire and we eat the meat with our hands, supplemented by platters of greens.
Qingya is sautéed with egg in an omelet. Qinghao is mixed in with garlic. Bamboo is coated in oil and chili peppers. Ejiaoban is paired with a vinegar sauce. Fish mint is the only raw vegetable in the repertoire. It sits in a pool of red chili sauce with hints of soy sauce and vinegar.
I take a bite of it and wince. It has a crunchy, velvety texture and tastes like a pungent type of cilantro. I hate cilantro.
"Like I said, you either hate it or love it," Porter says, finishing up the rest of the plate.