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Water Shield

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Winter Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(4) page(s): 19 and 34

Botanically known as Brasenia schreberii, this plant is in the water lily family, its leaves float in and on lakes, ponds, and other slow moving waters. It is very popular and often found in and on the West Lake in Hangzhou. Used in several Zhejiang dishes, one can purchase it in small green glass bottles that look a bit like old Coca Cola bottles with no special shape.

The leaves and stems are most popular, the flowers are less so, and one does not find them in those bottles. These special greens can be rather expensive, some restaurants replace them with scallions or coriander but those who know this soup will tell you that doing so means consuming a completely different soup.

Its older specimens, leaves, stems, and other rhizome parts can be covered with a mucilaginous jelly that gives the soup or any other dish its texture. These plants are in the Cobombaceae family, and when young are often completely submerged and anchored in mud six feet below the water's surface.

The Chinese call this vegetable chun cai or xiang liao, and they know its texture is somewhat slippery. They also know that West Lake Soup is classically made with these floating green leaves or stems, rarely with the dull purple flowers that grow from their center, often under its huge leaves or attached stems. This is a classic Zhejiang soup made with a chicken-soup base. It is served in up-scale eateries, at banquets, and at many special meals. This soup was once loved by many Imperial people.

One Emperor who did favor it; he knew it was originally made in Hangzhou so he made several trips there. He knew this vegetable was a perennial aquatic plant and that it belonged in his favorite soup. He made or had it made frequently and was not bothered by the thick gummy material found on the undersides of its leaves, stems, and developing buds. He knew the hot soup melted it off into the hot liquid, and without it the soup was not as pleasing because its texture was wrong. We wonder if he also knew it deterred snails from eating this vegetable?

Some medical practitioners told us this vegetable has antibacterial activity, and that it deters algae from growing. Those who have been to this lake find the former possible, the latter not realistic. Some call this an herb; they use it in many other dishes, though we never have. Perhaps they do not know that the heat of the soup's liquid thickens it and any dish it is used in. They probably know its leaves curl toward the center, are longer than they are wide, and that many are rather large, some ten or twelve inches in diameter.

We have purchased this vegetable, really parts of it in these green glass bottles that are about ten inches tall. They come capped as did the old Coke bottles, and we remember playing with the caps, their solid side down in a game called 'Kelsey.' We flikked them around chalk-drawn boxes and won many a penny playing that sidewalk game, that is if we got them in the corners and not on the lines. If we did flick one into the center square, we won two cents.

Over these many years we have only remembered two recipes that use water shield. One was for Water Shield Soup, the other in a soupy casserole. We did read that both of these dishes were liked by an emperor, but we never located which emperor.

We share them and hope you purchase some water shield and taste the real thing when purchasing or eating this soup you make or in a restaurant. The first recipe is more popular than the second, but both are worth preparing and enjoying. No wonder this vegetable was loved by an Emperor; his entourage, too.
West Lake Soup with Water Shield
1/4 pound chopped or ground beef
4 cups chicken stock or broth
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
2 egg whites, beaten until frothy but not stiff
1/2 cup water shield vegetable, fresh and blanched, or drained from the bottle it comes in, the liquid discarded
1. Blanch the beef in one cup of the stock or broth, then strain the liquid, and set it aside.
2. But the soup and the strained liquid in a large pot, add the salt and pepper, rice wine, soy sauce, and the cornstarch mixture, and bring to the boil, then immediately turn the heat to low.
3. Now return the beef to the pot, add the egg whites, and in half a minute add the water shield, stir several times, and serve.
Water Shield Casserole
1/2 pound chicken, white meat only, no skin nor bone, cut into thin strips
1 pound any white fish, skinless and boneless
2 pork kidneys, veins cut away and discarded, kidneys cut into thin strips
1/2 cup water shield vegetable, fresh and blanched, or drained from its bottle, liquid discarded
6 cups chicken stock 2 bouillon cubes
1 scallion, green part cut thin and on an angle, white part minced
5 slices fresh ginger, peeled and slivered
1 tablespoon coarse salt
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
3 Tablespoons white vinegar
1 Tablespoon Chinese black vinegar
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1. Arrange chicken, fish, kidney strips and water shield on a platter near a chafing dish or hot pot.
2. Put four cups of the broth and the bouillon cubes into the chafing dish or hot pot and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low.
3. Put white part of the scallion, the ginger, salt, soy sauce, both white and back vinegar, and the sugar into the pot; and provide each diner with a long-handles fork to cook their own chicken, fish, kidney, and vegetable to their liking of doneness.
4. Replenish the stock as it gets depleted. Serve it as a soup at the meal's end.

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