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Arrowhead: History and Consumption

by Yu Weijie

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Spring Volume: 2018 Issue: 25(1) pages: 23 to 24

This perennial bulb has one variety botanically known as Sagittaria sagittifolia, another as Sagittaria latifolia. Its English name is thanks to the shape of its leaves that protrude above the water they grow in.

Known in Chinese as cigu, this popular vegetable grows in many temperate and tropical regions, and is popular in Asian countries including China, North Korea, Japan, and India. It was domesticated in China where it is very popular.

Written about by Tao Hongjing, a Taoist master alchemist (born circa 456 BCE), he said they most often grow in water. They were botanically known as Alisma plantagoaquatica, a botanical name no longer popular.

The bulbs are white to yellowish, and larger than many others, bigger than in his time. They have a small amount of tan or purple exterior skin, and most of their flowers are white. Their male flower grows on the upper part of their stems, the females ones on the lower parts. The bulbs themselves are round, some seen on this page. People eat the bulbs and the roots growing below them; and some call them ‘weeds in water’ or ‘wild germ plasma.’ We know not why, do you?

Meng Shen (621 – 713 CE), a well-known food practitioner said that people in Southeastern China did become fond of them. However, he also expressed concern that eating too many could cause some problems. We never learn what these were.

During the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), this plant was popular used in desserts, perhaps because they called them fruits in those days. However, fruits they are not. Some remove their bitter flavor making them more palatable, others do not; and we are among the latter group. A few did use them as sacrificial food, and that was commonly written about. In those days, also written about was that many gods, goddesses, and ancestors would like them better with that bitterness removed. They said these folk do not ‘eat bitterness.’

Endless wars in the north of China saw many refugees migrating south. This caused food shortages that increased their use as more people starting to use them in soups, as vegetables, and in those aforementioned desserts.

This increased use increased a need for more to be planted so forest land was cleared to flood places and grow more of them. These bulbs are aquatic so fields needed to be flooded. These hungry folk also ate more of their stems and leaves so they planted even more of them. Before they did, locusts had enjoyed them, soon they had to abandon them as growers figured out ways to chase them away. Increased availability meant their prices did decline and their consumption did increase. This made more arrowheads available for human consumption.

During and after the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 - 1279 CE), their cultivation increased even more, and they were a vegetable important for staving off hunger. This continued during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties (1279 - 1368, 1368 - 1544, and 1644 - 1911 CE, respectively), as did early technology thanks to Lu Mingshan during the Yuan dynasty. This official of the Anhui Province wrote a tome convincing folk to “dig up the ground....put on a straw mat..., then arrange them on this mat, (and)...cover the soil then irrigate them.” This advise helped growers increase their yield as they could easily pick them from these mats.

Before this, arrowhead grew in disorganized fashions, and since this advise became popular, they benefitted from advanced planting, less transplanting, better spacing, and controlled weeding and feeding enabling more and larger yields, better quality bulbs, and that made for increased demand.

Before this change in growing them, inferior low-lying lands were used to cultivate these vegetables. However, by the 16th century, that article by Lu convinced farmers to grow them in new ways so they harvested bigger and better arrowheads in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, and Guangxi.

This greater demand increased the incomes of growers thanks to better use and use in famous dishes such as Braised Pork with Arrowhead, Arrowhead Pickled Soup, and more and better desserts. The previously mentioned braised dish was now more appreciated, the soup more appetizing; and other dishes used more, too.

This magazine’s editor advises that arrowheads can be used in many recipes. She says that before so doing, do peel and slice, dice or prepare them in any way one might prepare and cook potatoes. A favorite is to thin slice them and then fry them as one would when making potato chips. One can also simply boil them and then mash them, or dice and mix them with other vegetables, or to make then stir-fried with or without any sauce, as the two recipes that follow indicate as general examples.

Below are some recipes using this vegetable. Should you know others, we hope you will share them.

Arrowhead Braised With Pork

½ pound arrowhead
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil or lard
1 pound pork belly
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 Tablespoons yellow Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar


1. Peel the arrowhead tuber and cut it into large chunks.
2. Cut the pork belly into small pieces and blanch it for one minute, then blanch it with boiling water for one more minute, then drain and discard the water.
3. Now heat an empty wok or fry pan, add the oil or lard, and stir-fry the pork for three minutes, then add the arrowhead pieces and stir-fry them together for two more minutes.
4. Now add the soy sauce and the wine and stir-fry for one minute, then add enough boiled water to cover all ingredients and bring quickly to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer for fifteen minutes, then reduce the heat and simmer for forty minutes more on low heat.
5. Then add the sugar, stir well, and serve.

Pickles and Arrowhead Soup

2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 scallion, divided in half, and minced
dash of sugar
dash of salt
4 arrowhead bulbs, peel and sliced them, then rinse and drain them
3 half pickles, blanched one minute, then chopped


1. Heat wok or fry pan, then add the oil and stir-fry the ginger and half of the scallion for fifteen seconds, then add pickles and the arrowhead bulb slices, and stir fry for two minutes. Next, add three cups cold water and the sugar, and reduce the heat.
2. Simmer this for fifteen minutes until the arrowhead pieces are soft and the soup thickens a little.
3. Pour into pre-heated individual bowls or a soup tureen, then sprinkle on salt and the

Wu Weijie is a prolific researcher, writer, and is a Research Fellow at the Zhejiang Academy of Social Science in Hangzhou, China. She has researched and written about many topics including earlier ones for this magazine Cinnamon in Traditional Chinese Cuisine and Stinky Foods and their Customs

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