In Shanghai, wet markets hold the telltale signs that spring is finally upon us. Stalks of asparagus as thick as a thumb spring up first, alongside brown and white bamboo shoots so freshly pulled from the earth that dirt still clings to their fibrous shells. But the most exciting spring green is fava beans (蚕豆, cándòu), also known as broad beans. Their short season in Shanghai – usually just about four to five weeks – means they’re in high demand, and stalls are filled with workers shelling the labor-intensive beans by the bushel.
These inky beans can in fact be found year-round in various preserved forms: they are an essential ingredient in Sichuan bean paste (豆瓣酱, dòubàn jiàng), and shops near Yu Gardens sell dried five-spice favas (五香蚕豆, wǔxiāng cándòu) in every season. But we recommend taking advantage of the next month of good, fresh bean eating by heading to any local restaurant and asking about their fava bean dishes. Just get there before the beans’ tough husks grow impenetrable and the season passes you by.
Southern Barbarian In addition to sourcing wild mushrooms, mountain flowers and deep-fried insects like water bugs from Yunnan province, Southern Barbarian (which takes its name from the historical moniker for the province’s indigenous tribes) serves two delicious fava bean dishes worth a bite. An order of favas mashed with cured Yunnan ham (云腿豆泥) comes out looking like baby food, but it packs an impressive savory punch. (Fuchsia Dunlop, the Chinese cookbook author and memoirist who chronicled her time spent learning to master a wok in a Sichuan culinary school, includes a recipe for this dish in her latest book, Every Grain of Rice.) Also on the menu here is a dish that features every shade of green: broad beans stir-fried with garlic shoots. Its Chinese name (青蛙抱玉桂, qīngwābàoyùguì) can be playfully translated as “the green frog carries the jade laurel.” Not only does this friendly, slightly rustic restaurant offer these and other uncommon dishes from Yunnan province, it has one of the longest beer lists in Shanghai, including a number of imported brews from around the world.
For a cheap take on Huaiyang cuisine, Waipo Renjia (“Grandma’s Household”) offers the ultimate Shanghainese fava dish: beans soaked in scallion oil ( 葱油浸蚕豆, cōngyóu jìn cándòu). Ranked as one of China’s Four Great Culinary Traditions, Huaiyang cuisine is famous for its sweet flavors, and this dish bolsters that reputation with a liberal sprinkling of sugar. The cooking process, which involves submerging cooked favas in oil boiled with scallions and star anise, leaches the pistachio-colored legumes of their color, leaving them a shade of pallid gray. The flavor is, thankfully, anything but lifeless.
Yi Zhang Hong
For a year-round taste of these beans, try the sweet and sour version (糖醋蚕豆, táng cù cándòu) at this healthy Sichuan restaurant. After being dried to a chocolatey brown, the favas are tossed with sugar and vinegar. Order the “strange-tasting” lotus root (怪味藕片, guài wèi ǒu piàn) cold appetizer while you’re there. The flavor is named for its sauce’s one-two (plus three-four) punch of flavor: ginger, chili oil and chilies provide the typical heat, Sichuan peppercorn numbs the mouth, sesame adds sweetness and garlic gives it a pungent finish. It might not be the traditional way to eat dried favas, but if you dip them in the “strange tasting” sauce, they are way more addictive than bar peanuts (and they still pair perfectly with a pint).
One reason we are more than a little obsessed with this Melbourne-style café is its seasonal menu, and it doesn’t get more on point than their fava bean smash. The legumes get the avocado makeover, mashed up and slathered like the world’s healthiest butter on a thick wedge of sourdough. House feta, sprigs of mint and a perfectly poached egg (duh) round out the meal on a slice. It’s only available for weekend brunch, and while the favas stay fresh, so get on it.
This story was originally published on March 27, 2013, and has been updated.
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