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Tree Seeds

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Winter Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(4) page(s): 13 and 14

All trees have seeds. Surely, but not all are the Chinese food known by this simple name. Rarely available fresh, lucky when found in jars, not too many people know about yin tze, but when they taste and learn about them, they become staunch advocates. Many people do not know about these seeds because they are rarely available fresh outside of Southeast Asia. There they are known, loved, and used in ever so many ways.

Tree seeds are a delight worth seeking out. Go to any exhibition of Chinese culinary talent and you are sure to find then garnishing or as part of at least one dish in the exhibition. A couple of years ago, at such an event at the La Guardia Sheraton in Flushing, New York they were there. I asked many Chinese and an equal number of non-Chinese attendees and was surprised that few in either group knew what they were called, their botanical name, or anything about them.

Botanically known as Cordia dichotoma, also known as 'clammy cherry,' 'thanapet,' even 'lasora,' the Chinese primarily use this fruit prior to ripening. Stephen Facciola in Cornucopia II advises that this is a sticky mucilaginous fruit most often eaten or used for pickles. He also advises that when unripe, they are cooked as a vegetable or made into paste or cakes, and that the leaves, flowers, and seeds are also eaten.

The Chinese eat them alone, deep fry unripe fruit and use them for snacks nibbling on them as one would peanuts, and they use them fresh and pickled in an assortment of dishes. Those in Taiwan, southern China, in southwest China, even in Shanghai, have many creative uses for this little known plant outside of the regions where they grow. Perhaps that is because, at least in the United States, they are expensive, costing four dollars for a thirteen ounce jar that has about a cup and a half of pickled seeds. Maybe another reason is that the label only calls them Taiwan Pickled Seeds and lists the ingredients as tree fruit, soy sauce, sugar, seasoning; is not very informative.

At the above mentioned Chinese food exhibition, I was fortunate to meet up with Mr. Tuo, director of the International Division of Tourism of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications of Taipei. He was the only person there who could advise about how to prepare them, other than the way shown. That was the most common and beloved way they are used, whole ones garnishing a whole fish and others mashed into its sauce. Up until that time, that was the only way I had eaten them; that was in a Shanghainese restaurant not too far from that exhibition.

Mr. Tuo Chung-Hua told me that they are usually sauteed in soybean sauce, sugar, and other ingredients as well as used as a seasoning when steaming fish or frying shredded pork. I have since learned that they are great with steamed crabs, used with geoduck, shrimp, tofu, and with many other foods. I also learned some great substitutes for when they can not be located. I recommend using pickled cucumbers, pickled mustard greens, even fermented black beans. For the first two items, dice them into one-quarter inch pieces, for the black beans, rinse and cut each bean in half. Of course, the taste will be good, though different, but dishes that use tree seeds can still be made, though made differently. One word of caution, should you have some but not enough, do not mix them with any of the above items, the resulting tastes are too confusing. Also, be careful when eating them, many of these seeds still have a pit inside. Though tiny, we do not recommend eating these pits,often called stones. Some might choke on them.
Steamed Seafood with Tree Seeds
1/2 pound shrimp or three or four whole crabs, cleaned
2 Tablespoons shaoxing wine
2 slices fresh ginger, minced
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1/2 cup pickled tree seeds, rinsed once
1 scallion, minced
dash white pepper
1. Prepare the seafood by removing the black vein from the shrimp but leave tails on or by chopping the crabs into five or six pieces.
2. Put seafood on plate and drizzle with wine, ginger, sesame oil, sugar, soy sauce, and the tree seeds. Steam over boiling water for ten minutes, then remove.
3. Sprinkle with scallion pieces and serve.
Steamed Fish with Tree Seeds
1 sea trout or red snapper, cleaned, rinsed, and dried
1/4 teaspoon oil
1 dried chili pepper, seeded and minced fine
1 scallions, minced, keep green and white separate
1 slice fresh ginger, cut in thin strips
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 cup pickled tree seeds with three tablespoons of their pickling liquid
1. Cut five or six slashes into the flesh on each side of the fish and set it on a plate rubbed with the oil.
2. Sprinkle chili peppers, the white scallion pieces, and the ginger on top and drizzle soy sauce and sesame oil on this then put the tree seeds and their juice on top.
3. Steam for ten minutes, remove from steamer, spread fish with green scallion pieces and serve.
Tofu and Tree Seeds
1 piece firm tofu, cut into eight pieces
1 onion, cut in triangular wedges
6 shiitake mushrooms, soaked and quartered
6 straw mushrooms. cut in half
1 Tablespoon water chestnut flour or cornstarch
1/4 cup corn oil
1/2 cup pickled tree seeds, rinsed once
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with three tablespoons water
1. Dry tofu, onions, and both mushrooms then toss them together with the water chestnut flour.
2. Heat oil and fry half the tofu mixture for one minute then drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining mixture.
Reserve one tablespoon of the oil.
3. Heat oil, add the tree seeds and the fried ingredients and stir-fry one minute then add half cup of water, sesame oil. and soy sauce and cover, simmering this for five minutes. Remove the cover and thicken with the cornstarch and water mixture, then serve.

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