There are plants that can be described as tasting earthy— mostly roots and tubers that absorb the minerals and organic matter of the soil in which they grow buried. Rarely is earthy attributed to a green leaf, which is why I was stunned when I tasted tahoon sprouts. Just days out of the soil, the tiny green leaves emit an intense flavor of sun-baked dirt, humus, and wood, with an oily background of roasted nuts.
Tahoon (Toona sinensis), aka Chinese Toon, is a member of the Mahogany family, native to China, where the young leaves and sprouts (xiang chun) are enjoyed as a vegetable.
Upon tasting tahoon and then learning that the plant was hardy in my northern climate and could eventually develop into a tree, I became curious about the mature leaves and aromatic wood.
But locating the elusive tahoon seeds proved to be a challenge. Eventually, I found them at a Canadian seed company that specializes in Chinese vegetables.
The seedlings that I planted that summer, three years ago, didn't survive the winter. I planted another round the following year on the edge of a garden, near a stand of sumacs, that were forgotten until this spring when I noticed new growth on what I thought were sumac suckers, whose pinnate leaves closely resemble those of tahoon. It wasn't until I tasted them that I realized that the neglected plants had not only survived a harsh winter, but at nearly four feet in height, they were well on their way to becoming trees.
The mature tahoon leaves display the same aromatic properties that are found in the sprouts, but in a more diffused way. Instead of delivering the characteristic flavor up front, it saves it for the end, when you've nearly given up on it, then lingers on and on. The wood is richly aromatic, reminiscent of cedar, and full of promise.
The flavor of tahoon is often likened to beechnuts— a comparison that eluded me until recently. Though I'm always on the lookout for the nut of the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), a native tree proliferate in the eastern United States, it's temperamental when it comes to producing fruit. Some years it produces nothing at all, while in other years, the beechnuts are scarce and out of reach on the upper limbs and the cupules are dry and hollow by the time they hit the ground. I guess I just had to stop looking because that's how I finally found them. And, yes— now that I've tasted them— I can say [with conviction] tahoon does indeed taste like beechnuts. Actually, dirty beechnuts.
Thin, bias-cut slices of pork jowl, sandwiched between tahoon leaves. A quick saute in a hot pan renders the fat and crisps the leaves. Crispy on the outside, juicy and succulent on the inside.
What I've learned about cooking mature tahoon is that it doesn't do well when subjected to moist heat— the volatile aromas all but disappear. Dry heat preserves the flavor and draws out the already low water content from the leaves, making them crispy. And I like crispy.
pork jowl tahoon sandwich with roasted beechnut/jerusalem artichoke puree