Dianxi Xiaoge’s guide to foraging for edible plants in the wild

Ep.5 /Mar 05, 2020

Foraging for wild plants is a regular part of life in rural Yunnan, and the foraged greens often taste better than farmed vegetables. Chinese food influencer Dianxi Xiaoge shares some of her favorite edible wild greens and tips on how to cook with them.

In urban societies, foraging is often dismissed as a hipster pastime, but in rural communities around the world, it’s a regular part of daily life. Many wild plants and fungi either cannot be cultivated or are so common that many people don’t even bother.

Wild plants also taste richer, according to Dianxi Xiaoge, a Chinese food influencer known for her cooking videos shot in the countryside. “You can’t replace the flavor of wild plants with farmed vegetables,” she says.

Foraging for greens with Dianxi Xiaoge near her home in Yunnan.
Foraging for greens with Dianxi Xiaoge near her home in Yunnan. / Photo: Hanley Chu

In China, there’s no better place to pick wild edible greens than Yunnan Province. This subtropical southwestern region only makes up 4% of the country’s landmass but is home to 52% of its plant species.

To learn more about foraging, we traveled to Yunnan and met up with Dianxi Xiaoge, who has an online following of over 11 million fans.

(Read more: We picked and ate some wild plants in Hong Kong’s countryside)

When the weather’s right, she’ll often wander out into the fields or forest to forage for wild greens to incorporate into her dishes.

She says she’s familiar with over a dozen wild plants and mushrooms in her area, and prefers using them over farmed vegetables because they’re more fragrant. Here are some of her favorites.

Leaves of the shuixiangcai plant.
Leaves of the shuixiangcai plant. / Photo: Hanley Chu

Shuixiangcai 水香菜 (Elsholtzia kachinensis)

Shuixiangcai, literally “freshwater vegetable,” is a perfumy green that—as its name suggests—can be found near freshwater sources.

A salad made with shuixiangcai and fermented beans.
A salad made with shuixiangcai and fermented beans. / Photo: Hanley Chu

The plant is distinguished by its small purple flowers and small hairs that grow on the side of the stem. It can be cooked into a gently salted egg soup or eaten raw as a salad dressed with spicy fermented soybeans.

Wild mint in Yunnan.
Wild mint in Yunnan. / Photo: Hanley Chu

Wild mint 野薄荷 (Metha aquatica)

Like shuixiangcai, this variety of wild mint also grows on the edges of water. It has the exact same flavor profile as mint you might find at a grocery store, except it’s wild.

Wild mint is a common sight on Dianxi Xiaoge’s family farm. In Yunnan, it is often used in savory dishes and adds brightness to meaty dishes.

It can also be stir-fried with hot chili peppers to balance out the heat.

Wild chives 野韭菜 (Allium ursinum)

This wild onion thrives in a wide range of habitats from Asia to Europe. It prefers to grow in moist environments and has a distinct pungent aroma reminiscent of garlic and onions.

The entire plant is edible, from the leaves to the roots. In China, the tender leaves are harvested and stir-fried with egg.

Dianxi Xiaoge harvests tsaoko fruits in the wild.
Dianxi Xiaoge harvests tsaoko fruits in the wild. / Photo: Courtesy of Dianxi Xiaoge

Tsaoko 草果 (Lanxangia tsaoko)

Tsaoko is a ginger-like plant that’s common in Southeast Asia. It’s a common seasoning and personal favorite of Dianxi Xiaoge. Because the fruit takes three years to grow, she often harvests them in large batches to dry.

The fruit has a natural peppery aroma, and can be grounded into a powder and sprinkled on dishes.

At Home With Dianxi XiaogeEnvironmentAdventuresYunnan
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Host and Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographers: Hanley Chu and Shirley Xu

Editor: Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña