It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
HAIR VEGETABLE (发菜, fǎ cài)
Regions of use: China
When I first saw hair vegetable at my Chinese teacher’s house during Chinese New Year last year, I thought somebody had placed sweepings from a barbershop in a bowl of water. That’s how closely it resembled its namesake. And despite being vegetarian-friendly and therefore assumedly boring in my cretaceous mind, hair vegetable was the most intriguing eat out of a dinner spread that included big bulbous river snails, slippery pig intestines, and tripe. Unfortunately, the portion was so tiny my teacher didn’t cook it, and it wasn’t until recently that I finally tried this tufty treat.
What is it?
Hair vegetable is actually not a vegetable, nor a seaweed as often thought, but a freshwater alga that grows on topsoil in the Gobi Desert and Qinghai Plateau where it forms long strands. Dried, it looks similar to matted black hair, like Genghis Khan’s in the movie Mongol.
To prep hair vegetable you must first soak it in cold water for half an hour or so and rinse it well. Then it’s ready to be simmered for 10 minutes and seasoned with chicken broth, salt, sugar, and wine or added to soup, or paired with black mushrooms, shaoxing wine and oyster sauce, among other preparations. Sometimes it’s used for visual effects, like serving as the fur for realistic miniature pandas made from minced fish in a dish called “Pandas at Play” mentioned in Asian ingredient encyclopedia, Foods from the Far East.
Dried hair vegetable
The Chinese view hair vegetable as a cooling food and a colon cleanser best eaten when your insides feel knotted. They also consider it auspicious because the word for hair vegetable, “fa cai,” sounds similar to the “fa cai” meaning “get rich” as in “gongxi fa cai,” (hope you get rich in the new year!). So with Chinese New Year looming, you can expect Chinese families to comb every inch of Shanghai for it.
It’s unlikely they’ll find the real thing. Over harvesting of hair vegetable has led to soil erosion in its native regions, prompting the government to limit availability, and leading to mass counterfeiting. A 2007 article estimated that most of the hair vegetable in China was indeed fake.
More alarming was a study, also from 2007, linking hair vegetable to Alzheimer’s and dementia, though this hasn’t been proven in any major scientific circles.
Bad hair-vegetable day
Somehow the improbable odds of finding the real deal combined with the rumored threat of acquiring degenerative brain disease if I did translated to “let’s eat it” in my mind, and I set out to snag this wispy delicacy. The place I discovered in Pudong was claimed to be a good bet by one of my sources. The cheap price of their hair vegetable dish, called “fa cai ying geng yu” (18RMB), indicated otherwise. You can apparently verify its authenticity with iodine (adulterated strands turn black when treated with it), though I doubted a big-headed laowai holding a camera and squirting food with a strange chemical from a vial would go over well at any restaurant in this age of widespread food-scandal reporting.
The lowly 18RMB made sense when I saw that the “fa cai ying geng yu,” a misty soup of egg flakes and tiny white fish, contained only a few strands of the stuff – not enough to glean a sense of its flavor, if it was in fact real. The few bits I did slurp evoked the feeling of accidentally getting hair in your mouth while showering. Dispirited, I left the restaurant and flew back to the US for winter vacation.
At last, hair vegetable
A few weeks later I discovered a pound of 100% authentic hair vegetable that’d been sitting in my dad’s spice closet in New York City for years. I never thought I’d be so excited to see something that looked like a cross between steel wool and Chewbacca’s back hair. After immersing a clump of it in water for 30 minutes, it was into the pot where it simmered for 10 minutes in chicken stock until becoming dark green, confirming its purity.
The tangle of algae soaked up the savory chicken stock like a mop, and didn’t taste half bad itself; kind’ve like earthier seaweed. And thankfully, it dissolved rather than lingering in my mouth like real hair.
Hair vegetable simmered in chicken stock
Hair vegetable is a prime example of China’s constant struggle to preserve traditional foods while also acknowledging environmental concerns. It has incredible flavor and a fascinating role in Chinese culinary history, but if eating it’s as bad for the environment as they say, like with tiger penis and bear claw, perhaps history is where it should remain.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Blood
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected]ghaiist.com.