Whenever I head back to my hometown of Suizhou (随州) in northern Hubei Province, the first thing I want to eat isn’t the fare Hubei’s usually famous for, like steamed fish or braised chicken. It’s something much more modest: a vegetable called pao pao qing (泡泡青) or literally “bubbly green vegetable.” Also known as qingcai (青菜), the vegetable is a specialty of my hometown, and a classic during Spring Festival.
Pao pao qing is a tough, vigorous plant that comes into season during the winter, and is especially tasty just after a frost or snowfall. Its palm-sized leaves are thick and blackish-green, with a puffy texture that gives the plant its name. But despite its tough appearance, pao pao qing is tender when cooked, and boasts a light, fresh, even slightly sweet taste.
During our Chinese New Year’s Eve feast, a plate of stir-fried pao pao qing was always an indispensible dish. I still remember when my grandmother was alive, she used to say to us, “Eat some qingcai, kids! Then you will be blessed with good health all year long!”
On that night, even my family’s buffalo would get in on the action, with a bowl of rice and pao pao qing. As she was handing the bowl to him, my grandmother would say a popular local verse to the buffalso: “Although the buffalo has been beaten and scolded by his owner many times, it’s looking forward to enjoying a bowl of rice on the Chinese New Year’s Eve” (打一千骂一万，望到腊月三十吃碗饭 Dǎ yīqiān mà yī wàn, wàng dào làyuè sānshí chī wǎn fàn). When I was a child, every family in my town kept buffalos to help them plow the fields, so by feeding them pao pao qing, my grandmother told me, we were hoping to improve our own fortune for the coming year—after all, a strong buffalo means a bigger harvest!
Though my grandmother’s generation had almost no formal education (most were illiterate), they figured out from observation that pao pao qing was a nutritional powerhouse—a supposition that’s been born out by modern scientific research. Pao pao qing is rich in proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and more.
As local populations became more mobile in the 90s, pao pao qing’s popularity began to spread beyond my hometown. Some even brought seeds of the plant back home to grown their own, but found that the plants had a lighter color, thinner leaves and no bubbles at all. In terms of both appearance and texture, this foreign-grown pao pao qing was a far cry from its Suizhou ancestors. It’s said that the plant selected its own ideal environment, and only Suizhou’s dry and cold winters were suitable for its growth.
In my hometown, we have several low-fuss ways of cooking pao pao qing. Some of the most common are stir-frying it in hot oil with ginger until soft or throwing it into a hotpot. Some also use the vegetable to make chunjuan (春卷, spring roll), which—in contrast to the American version—features a sheet fried bean curd rolled up and stuffed with pao pao qing, minced lotus root, pork, salt, ginger and spring onions.