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.
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.
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.