Nanjing New Year’s salad

Take a break from the rich Chinese New Year feasting with food writer Fuschia Dunlop's version of shi ba xian. The auspicious mix of colorful vegetables is sure to bring you good luck and prosperity in the coming year.

Over the course of many fruitful sojourns, food writer and cookbook author Fuschia Dunlop has tasted her way throughout China’s many provinces to learn its varied regional cuisines. Tasting her way from one street stall to the next, her epicurean pursuits have led her into the restaurant and home kitchens of farmers and wealthy merchants alike to document their local ingredients, flavors and culinary techniques. In her most recent book, “Land of Fish and Rice,” she travels to the “culinary heart” of China in the Lower Yangtze River region. With each recipe, Dunlop chronicles her adventures fishing on lakes or foraging with chefs for bamboo shoots and wild vegetables in the countryside. This Nanjing New Year’s salad is just one of the many delightful recipes she collected during her travels.

“In Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, a colorful cooked salad like this is an essential part of the New Year’s Eve feast, and makes a pleasing contrast to the lavish ‘big fish, big meat’ (da yu da rou) character of the other celebratory dishes. It is traditionally made in large quantities so that it can be eaten gradually over the lazy first few days of the year. The salad should include at least ten different vegetables; some restaurants make it with eighteen, which is why another name for the dish is ‘Eighteen Fresh Ingredients,’ or shi ba xian.

“Some of the vegetables typically included have an auspicious symbolism, like ‘golden’ lily flowers, ‘silver’ bamboo shoot and soybean sprouts, which resemble the archaic ruyi scepter, an ornamental backscratcher made from precious materials. In Shanghai restaurants, red and green bell peppers and cucumber are often added. Celtuce, lotus root, arrowhead, winter bamboo shoot, tofu skin, snow peas and fresh mushrooms all make fine additions.

“I’ve tasted many different versions of this dish in Nanjing and Shanghai; the following recipe is my own amalgam. Feel free to tweak it as you see fit, and compose your own salad like a symphony of color. What you want is a pretty mix of hues, made harmonious by the strandy cut of all the ingredients; a hint of sweetness shot through with pickle pungency; and a gentle toastiness from the sesame oil. Double the quantities if you want a salad to tide you through the New Year holiday.”

All photos by Yuki Sugiura.