Among the greatest pleasures of summer is eating fresh food, whether that means sinking your teeth into tomatoes straight from the vine or sucking the nectar from honeysuckle blossoms while out on a walk. When I was a kid in Hubei, we went for a slightly earthier snack during the warmer months: yuxingcao (鱼腥草), which literally translates as “fish-smelling herb.”
Unlike tomatoes or honeysuckle, however, yuxingcao wasn’t just an anytime-food; in my hometown of Suizhou, the herb was used primarily as antidote to spring and summer colds. Whenever the sniffles started sweeping our town, you were sure to find anxious mothers out along the edges of the terraced fields, gathering handfuls of wild yuxingcao. After a few doses of the herb—eaten raw, stalks, leaves and all—the afflicted was sure to be back on her feet. In those leaner times, the mysterious yuxingcao helped save a lot of money for the villagers.
Despite its reputation as a superfood, yuxingcao isn’t commonly cultivated—thanks in large part to its hardy character, which has allowed the plant to spring up in ponds and other wet areas near farmland. Xiao Wen, a young man from the countryside in Sichuan, says that when he was a kid, you could stumble across yuxingcao anywhere. “It was all over,” he says. “Vegetable garden, rice fields, terraced field ridges, river banks.”
Wild yuxingcao is bountiful in the provinces just south of the Yangtze River, especially Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan, where the stalks are commonly served for their health properties and sweet, pungent flavor.
A famous Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD)-era medical book called Mingyibielu（《名医别录》）recorded: “Yuxingcao grows rampant in wetlands, as well as shady places in mountains or valleys. Its leaves are as fat at the buckwheat’s, and the stalks are a purplish-red. The people in middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River love eating it raw. Guangzhong people call it jucai (菹菜). Its leaves have a fishy flavor, so its nickname is yuxingcao” (生湿地，山谷阴处亦能蔓生，叶如荞麦而肥，茎紫赤色，江左人好生食，关中谓之菹菜，叶有腥气，故俗称鱼腥草。Shēng shī dì, shāngǔ yīn chù yì néng mànshēng, yè rú qiáomài ér féi, jīng zǐ chìsè, jiāng zuǒ rén hào shēngshí, guānzhōng wèi zhī jū cài, yè yǒu xīngqì, gù súchēng yú xīng cǎo).
There are as many different ways to eat yuxingcao as there are places you can find it. And it’s no wonder—the plant is believed to remedy everything from lung and respiratory troubles to stomach problems. Xiao Pan, a friend who grew up in a different part of Hubei explains that where he’s from, yuxingcao was believed to relieve heat from the body, and prevent bacteria from attacking the stomach and intestines. “When the scorching summer arrives, we would usually boil yuxingcao stalks for tea,” he says.
In many southern provinces like Sichuan, Guizhou and Hunan, yuxingcao is often served as a cold dish. In Sichuan it goes by the creative name zhubigong (猪鼻拱, pig’s nose) thanks to the leaves’ resemblance to a pig snout.
Recently, I happened to go to a Beijing restaurant called Huaxi Rice Noodles (花溪米粉), which was owned by a Guizhou native. I ordered what I understood to be a Guizhou specialty, sour and spicy zhe’ergen (酸辣折耳根). To my surprise, when the dish came out, it was a plate full of yuxingcao! Zhe’ergen, I then remembered, is a popular name for the herb in Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan. The dish dressed the yuxingcao with vinegar and chillies, yielding a juicy, chewy texture and pungent fragrance. I liked it! Though I still felt it wasn’t as good as the yuxingcao from my hometown; the flavor was different, and the stalks seemed a bit too thick. It was then that the owner told me this yuxingcao, or zhe’ergen as he called it, weren’t plucked wild from the countryside of South China, but planted in a greenhouse nearby.
I had to say, it wasn’t bad, but if you have a chance to go to the countryside in South China, don’t forget to dig a handful of wild yuxingcao to bring back with you!