Monday, March 27, 2006

WHB #25 - Casting Pearl Leaves Before Swine

Did anyone of you ever read Austenesque or Regency romancey type novels? When I was young, one of my aunts was a Barbara Cartland fan and from the infrequent peeks into her room, an entire wall was filled with the cotton candy-haired, bejeweled and petrified pooch-clutching novelist’s works.

Photo of petrified canine from

I was always terribly curious about Aunt Ruth’s room which seemed like an Aladdin’s cave full of art nouveau prints, roses, cameo brooches and “forbidden” novels. Alas, my high-minded mother and grandmother would only ever allow me to read “educational literature” so while I had a close relationship with Austen, Dumas and Shakespeare, the Cartlands were a complete mystery to me.

It wasn’t till preteen that I managed to borrow a romance novel to find out what all the fuss was about. All my classmates were devouring the Mills and Boons but I remember one dreamy-eyed, bespectacled girl had her head forever buried in the yellowed pages of Cartland novels. Always inquisitive, I finagled one from her. I proceeded with a very systematical approach. Lining up Emma (I knew it would be a survey error to do a comparison with Price and Prejudice), a Cartland book the title of which I cannot remember or want to remember now, a Mills and Boons novel and a Sweet Valley High issue, I began my literary adventure into fantasy land.

I must say I much preferred Austen for the humorous and wry depiction of human foibles. But Cartland spent enough time describing innocent, limpid eyed heroines in formal, flouncy gowns that it was like reading a fashion magazine – with more text and no pictures. Kind of like a very dumbed-down Vanity Fair. Or an intellectual Hello magazine. Did I just say that?? As to the Mills and Boons, I just felt like shaking the heroine for being a silly female and kicking the hero in the gonads for being a chauvinistic lout. And let’s say I was really glad I went to an all-girls school instead of Sweet Valley High.

Anyway, my point is … and I do have one … is that in both Austen and Cartland novels, the women seemed forever afflicted by fainting spells and migraines. Growing up, I scorned these as wimpy, contrived feminine wiles unleashed by women to either prove their delicate constitution as part of their refined upbringing or to get their way around their unsuspecting and long-suffering menfolk.

Imagine my horror when I experienced my first fainting spell. I did not even have the excuse of lung-crushing corsets and there I was, prone on the ground as concerned teachers and classmates hovered around the fuzzy peripherals of my dazed vision. For some reason, I had become anaemic.

Photo from

My hippy mother had determined that red meat was bad for us and insisted that I only ate white meat. For once, she won that argument despite my grandmother’s vehement and scornful disdain. Fortunately, I actually liked chicken and fish so I had no problems eschewing red meat. The occasional sneaky lamb roasts and mutton curries from my grandmother helped but on the whole, I was an obedient child faithfully following my mother’s latest fad. Until the fainting spells.

This latest debacle and my family doctor’s exasperation gave my grandmother and the family more reason to revile my mother’s unorthodox and unpopular child-rearing methods. Apparently, because of my physically demanding schedule, I required a lot more nutrients and protein. I was immediately beset with a red meat-filled diet until my body sorted itself out.

I had a few fainting spells along the way, which never failed to embarrass and mortify me. But I never even knew what a migraine was … until my final exam at Cambridge ‘A’ Levels. In the midst of a busy scribble with my 3B pencil, a massive sledgehammer swung point blank at the side of my head, cracking my unsuspecting cranium, plastering brain matter wantonly across the wooden floors.

Not really.

But it sure felt like it. I was taken completely by surprise. I’d never even had a headache before that day and had absolutely no idea what had just blindsided me. I came to dread migraines. Because my migraines come with the lethal force of a 3-ring circus, alien sightings and terrorist attacks. Never one to do anything in half measures, I have migraines that pummel me into the submission by searing my corneas with even the dimmest light, magnifying the softest whisper into a banshee’s scream, and heightening gentle touches into a swinging frying pan in the face.

Photo from

And they last forever! The recent attack lasted three days and I only just recovered today after succumbing at long last to the oblivion of industrial strength painkillers. Which unfortunately, made me miss an appointment with 3A Gurl. I feel exceptionally bad. At our last phone conversation, I was delirious with pain, mutered incoherently and ended the conversation abruptly as her voice was driving ten inch nails into my brain. I decided I will cook some chicken rice for her and 3A Hubby as compensation.

But that did not eliminate the problem that I had not had anything to eat today while knocked out from drugs. I rummaged in my fridge and discovered a packet of green herbs I had purchased the day of the dreaded migraine. For months, I had loitered wistfully at a particular vegetable stall in the local wet market which sold the most intriguing vegetables. Unfortunately, the stall owners spoke nary a word of English and I did not speak their Chinese dialect, so I have never been able to ask them what the vegetables were.

On that day, however, there was a young lady manning the stall who looked like she could speak English. Seizing upon the chance with alacrity, I engaged her in conversation and next thing I knew, she was translating between her father and I. The vegetable that most intrigued me was a silvery green herb that looked like a feathery fern. Unfortunately, father and daughter did not know the name of the vegetable and all he impart was that it was a vegetable called hia, which apparently you cook in scrambled eggs. Even his daughter looked sceptical.

The other vegetable that caught my attention was a pointy-leaved specimen that reminded me of coriander and mint. The father told me, through his patient daughter, that it was called zhen zhu ye, which translated meant pearl leaf. I had never heard the like. It felt quite hardy with rather woody stems and coarse, fairly tough leaves. It smelt very herby and grassy yet with a faint hint of aniseed. I was very intrigued especially when the father divulged that it is a herb used to purify the blood. Through some clumsy sign language and the helpful translation of his daughter, I found out that it is best cooked in a soup with pork to help the body purge itself of stagnant and impure blood. In other words, it is ideal for women just coming out of their monthly cycles.

While it is not that time of the month for me yet … yes, yes I know, too much information, I was still entranced enough to purchase some to experiment with it. Even more mysterious is that I found no reference of this “pearl leaf” in any of my books or on the web. This was truly a mystery herb. I had no other recourse or resource except the elderly vegetable seller. I decided to take the plunge … just for you guys, I will try this vegetable. OK, so my curiosity is the main reason.

At home, I examined it closely. The purplish stems lent a gothic, regal appearance to the zhen zhu ye that closely resembles the commonplace flowering plants around some of my neighbours’ gardens. Somehow, I knew this humble vegetable was a hardy, strong herb that is often overlooked and under-rated. For that reason, I was inclined to give it more time and respect. Plucking the leaves from the stems was a little tedious, which explained why no one was purchasing this vegetable in the market. I’ve noticed that some Singaporeans are quite lazy in the kitchen and avoid any plant which they think take too much work. I once heard a couple complaining that they never cook watercress at home because the leaves were too prolific, tiny and fiddly to pluck and clean. I was absolutely horrified.

Although the father told me to cook the pearl leaves with spareribs or sliced pork, I decided to use pork balls instead. Since I was still a little woozy from all the painkillers, I decided to just have the soup and to make it fast. The only thing that took time was the shaping of the pork balls. I kept it as simple as possible as I wanted to get the true measure of the zhen zhu ye and did not want anything adulterating my first taste of this mysterious herb.

I did not measure anything so forgive me if the measurements given below are as fuzzy and incoherent as I am.

Pork Balls with Pearl Leaf Soup

Pork balls
- About 125g of minced pork
- 3/4 tsp cumin powder
- Pinch of Mexican cumin powder
- ¼ tsp ground coriander
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- Pinch of ground turmeric
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- ½ tsp light soy sauce
- ½ tsp mirin
1 small onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 very large shitake mushroom, sliced

1 large basket of zhen zhu ye aka pearl leaves
¾ cube of chicken stock
2 ½ cup of water
Pinch of salt
3 dashes of white pepper powder
2 tsp of oil

1. Mix all the ingredients for the pork balls in bowl and set aside for about 10-15 minutes as you prepare the pearl leaves

2. Pluck the leaves from the woody stems and wash well to get rid of all the dirt. You will need at least 3 washes before all the grit is removed

3. Start rolling out the pork balls

4. Heat the oil and sauté the garlic till just blistering and starting to turn golden

5. Add ¾ of the sliced onions and sauté till slightly transparent and very fragrant

6. Add the water, rest of the onions and the chicken stock cube and bring to the boiling point, covered

7. Once boiling, add the pork balls and shitake mushrooms and bring to simmering

8. When the pork balls float to the top, add the pearl leaves and cook on medium heat for about 8-10 minutes. I cooked it a little longer as the leaves were still quite hardy at the 5-minute mark.

9. Season to taste and serve immediately

10. I added some sliced red chillies as I wanted some heat. Unfortunately, these red chillies were as hot as red capsicums … oh well …

The soup was wonderfully tasty and nourishing and I was glad I made the decision to make this simple soup with a new ingredient. The pearl leaves had a texture that was coarse and rustic but the taste was unusual. As I surmised, it tasted like a cross between a coriander and a watercress with a hint of aniseed and mint. It is certainly unusual and the herby flavour is quite brash yet elusive at the same time. Elusive because you spend much of the time trying to identify what it reminds you of and finally you have to surrender to the idea that it is quite unique.

I cannot tell if it has any overt benefits as yet but I would be interested in seeing if it has any effects in the next few days. I did notice that it left a subtle aftertaste of mint on my breath which made me wish I had kept some leaves to see if they work as breath fresheners. I will endeavour to find out more about this plant. Perhaps further conversation with the old vegetable seller and his daughter is in order. Or I can bring a leaf to the Chinese medical hall to ask if it has any other medicinal value.

So, on the taste scale, my meal today scores a 8/10. While still unsure of the fruition of the pearl leaves’ alleged benefits, it was still a healthy meal, garnering a 9/10.

And there is my entry this week for Weekend Herb Blogging #25 – the mysterious Pearl Leaf. Hopefully, it has not been a case of casting pearl leaves upon this swine. That saying, it's off to sleep away the last remnants of this pesky migraine in the hopes that I can cast that off permanently.


Blogger Kalyn said...

This is a completely new plant for me. Sounds very interesting. I do hope you are feeling better soon. I hate being sick.

5:07 am  
Blogger 3A Gurl said...

Will try your recipe one day. If I can find some pearl leaves somewhere. As for missing date, no sweat. When you feel better, come over and I will douse you with gui ling gao (the one for headaches) and pass you a heat pack (very good for pain relief, even migraines).

10:39 am  
Blogger ilva said...

Get better and when you feel fine you can make the mem I just tagged you for!

6:14 pm  
Blogger Anna said...

Oooh but it looks so good... I'd love to taste pearl leaf. Hope it has some time release properties so you'll get better soon!

7:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very interesting plant! Hope you feel better real soon!


6:35 am  
Blogger MM said...

Kalyn & Paz - Thanks so much! I do feel much better today after losing a few days literally!

3A - char bor, I will take you up on that even though I hate gui ling gou with a passion. Had it once a long time ago and literally cried as I ate it - it was just so awful!

Ilva - Arrrrgghhh! I'm IT! OK ...

Anna - Er, without grossing anyone out, I did notice that I was emitting more er ... stuff, and was very grateful I was all alone at home. Well, I do not think pearl leaves travel well otherwise I will send you some!

7:12 am  
Anonymous sha said...

i was here earlier but i did not know what to say
food and barbara cartland hehehe

never had seen this pearl leaves

and hey my classmates were so obsessed with BC romance I was into hardy boys

8:47 am  
Anonymous stefoodie said...

now that's something i've never heard of either. i tried searching as well, but haven't found anything -- yet. will let you know if i do:)

7:58 pm  
Blogger MM said...

Sha - I was into the Hardy Boys too but when I was a little younger. By preteen I was more into the David Eddings, Robert Jordans, Tom Clancys and Le Carres. I devoured fantasy and sci fi books at that age.

Stefoodie - Yeah, isn't it strange how there is no mention of it at all? It really is the most mysterious herb.

3:05 am  
Blogger sweet-gut said...

Hi --- this zhen zhu ye / pearl leaf --- is it perhaps a mutant basil? Thonalt.

6:05 am  
Blogger MM said...

Donald - Nope. It tasted, felt and smelt nothing like basil. Definitely not.

11:18 pm  

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