When farmers markets abound with fiddlehead ferns, baby artichokes and spring onions, spring has sprung. While I am infatuated with these seasonal treasures, spring also brings an abundance of tender greens favored in Asian cooking, like chrysanthemum greens (a.k.a. tong ho in Chinese, shingiku in Japanese or tan o in Vietnamese), a grassy, herbaceous and leafy plant that can be eaten raw in a salad or tossed into soups for fragrance. I’m so happy that farmers –and grocers — are finally also carrying more Asian staples like tatsoi, mizuna and pea sprouts. When plucked fresh, these tender greens are sweetly pungent and a great alternative to other baby lettuces like mesclun, especially when tossed with a bit of sesame oil, soy sauce and rice vinegar. Or, heat up your wok with a couple cloves of sliced garlic, and quickly stir-fry these tender greens.
Tofu Chrysanthemum Salad (Ma Lan Tou)
Get your hands on a fresh bundle of Asian spring greens, and toss them in this cold salad that is a mainstay in Shanghainese kitchens. We like to make this cold dish with chrysanthemum greens (and plenty of cilantro) but it works just as well with other tender greens. A hint: salt the greens to bring out the water before combining with the other ingredients.
¼ cup light soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
¼ cup Asian sesame oil
1 bunch chrysanthemum leaves, thick stems discarded, leaves finely chopped
½ bunch fresh cilantro, stems discarded and leaves coarsely chopped
2 scallions (green and white parts), finely chopped
1 pound firm tofu
Not to be confused with the Sichuanese dish ma po tofu, ma lan tou is a refreshing and easy-to-compose cold salad that is frequently served as part of a selection of small plates at the start of a Shanghainese feast. Along with crumbled firm tofu, chrysanthemum leaves (known as shungiku leaves in Japanese, or tong ho in Cantonese) are the co-star of the dish. They impart a fragrant and mildly grassy note to this herbaceous salad, and are easily found in Asian groceries (particularly when in season, from spring to autumn). Excellent raw, young chrysanthemum greens are also a great addition to soups and the Japanese hot pot, shabu shabu.
Whisk the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sea salt, white pepper, and sesame oil together in a small bowl.
Combine the chrysanthemum leaves, cilantro, and scallions in a large bowl.
In another large bowl, crumble the tofu with your hands. Add the salad mixture to the tofu and toss to combine. Then add the dressing, toss, and let the salad marinate for about 15 minutes in the refrigerator to let the flavors mingle. Do not leave the dressed salad for more than an hour, or the greens will start to wilt. Serve the salad chilled.
TIP: This dish is for cilantro lovers. If you don’t fall into that category, feel free to substitute flat-leaf parsley for the cilantro.