Daily Vegetable Candy: Mesembryanthemum crystallinum

Mesembryanthemum crystallinum: bingcai, common ice plant, crystalline iceplant, ice greens.

When in China, my general policy is to eat every food I am presented with: after all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I am rarely disappointed and often dazzled by the wonderful flavours, colours and textures that are shared with me. The Chinese and Taiwanese love to eat, and enjoy nothing better than to treat a guest to the best meal they can offer. Hence I will return home to the UK considerably plumper than when I left.

Mesembryanthemum crystallinum

Over the last two weeks I have dined like a king on prawns, crab (soft-shell and hairy), lobster, eel, jellyfish, razor clams, beef, pork and chicken, all accompanied by wonderful rices, plump, deep-fried buns and gleaming green vegetables.

One appetiser which has always mystified me is a glistening, leafy shoot that’s served occasionally at the start of a meal with a vinegar-based dressing. The leaves appear to be coated with a thick frost, as if they’ve been stored in a freezer, but are in fact presented at room temperature. They taste fresh and clean, with just a hint of sour and salt to kick one’s palette into gear. Thousands of little bubbles on the surface of each leaf explode on the tongue as you chew them, releasing a burst of vitamin-rich refreshment.

"Eispflanze3" by Schnobby - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eispflanze3.jpg#/media/File:Eispflanze3.jpg
“Eispflanze3” by Schnobby – Own work. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eispflanze3.jpg#/media/File:Eispflanze3.jpg

Whilst adventurous, I do like to know what I am eating so I enquired and was told the vegetable was called ‘bingcai’ in Catonese or ‘ice greens’ in English. In Hong Kong the leaves have only been available for the last few years (at a steep £5 per kilo) having falling out of favour in the 1930s. Ice greens are in fact a member of the flowering mesembryanthemum family from South Africa and may also be cooked like spinach. Sautéed gently they will maintain their crunch very nicely.

Should you fancy growing this unique vegetable yourself, you can. In the UK, seeds are available from The Botany Seeds Company. Not only will you be trying something new, but you can guarantee your dinner guests will be dazzled by your worldliness and intrigued by the refreshing taste.

 

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12 thoughts on “Daily Vegetable Candy: Mesembryanthemum crystallinum

    1. Ahh, that’s Carpobrotus edulis and much more problematic. It’s becoming a bit of a menace in Cornwall. I believe the fruits are edible (if fully ripened), but not the leaves….. Unless you are a baboon or porcupine, which clearly you are not 😉

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  1. Actually, I have tasted these before and you’re spot on! Greaat for summer salads. But I never knew the name of the thing. I might give growing some a try if I can get a hold of seeds over here in Germany.

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    1. Hmmm. Hairy crabs are OK but I’d take the English kind any time. They are rather interesting creatures with hairy claws. There is hardly any meat on them but they are a delicacy in China, especially the female ones which are full of roe. I eat them politely but would not pay what they cost here.

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  2. I’ve never tried them, but I’m told the “leaves” of Carpobrotus edulis are edible as well (which would match with the “edulis”). But most who have written about it suggest that they are better pickled, and a little sketchy raw.

    They are all over the place here in California, and, matching the confusion seen in the UK, are also called “ice plant.” I can’t explain why; there is nothing “icy” about them. M. crystallinum–which is also naturalized in California, lives up to it’s name, with little ‘crystals’ all over the leaves and stems.

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    1. How interesting. Thank you David. We have problems with Carpobrotus edulis here in the warmer parts of the UK as becomes invasive and takes over coastal cliff vegetation, crowding out native plants. Perhaps serving it as a pickled vegetable is one way of reducing the problem!

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