I used to get quite annoyed when I first came to the States. On many Chinese restaurant menus, several items are translated as “water chestnuts”. They may be relatives in the plant family, but they look different, taste different, and have totally different Chinese names. Ling is one of the “water chestnuts” that became nameless in English.
Ling is the fruit of a water plant. Someone did a dissertation research and identified eight types of them
.I don’t think I’ve seen all eight types, but I knew several.
They come farm-raised, like these I bought today, or wild, which I have not seem for many years. Some are big, others are small. Some have two “horns” and two “spikes’ on the side, others have two horns no spikes, and yet there are those that don’t have horns nor spikes. They have a thin wooden shell covered by a tender layer of skin ranging from pink to dark
purple, some are green. You can buy them raw or cooked, eat them raw or cooked, stir fry them, put them in pork stew or boil them plain. When they are raw, they are lightly sweet with a hint of starch, and very crunchy. When they are cooked, they have the texture of baking potatoes, although the flavor is different.
When I was a child, the street vendors came often during this season. On their shoulders, the men and women carried a bamboo stick with two bamboo baskets dangling on either end. In the baskets, they had heaps of ling. They covered them with damp cloth to keep them fresh. These vendors went from alley to alley, calling out, “Ma ya ling lou! Buy the wild ling!” All street vendors had their unique calls in those days, the knife sharpeners, the popcorn makers, but the ling sellers’ call in our dialect was especially melodic.
The wild ling they sold were about a quarter of the size of these shown in the pictures, but they were far more flavorful.
We kids always rushed out of our courtyards, calling after a vendor. He’d stop and pick a clean spot to put down his goods. We would first say, “raw” or “cooked”, and hand him a 5-penny coin. He would lift the cloth and count the ling by the pieces, scope them up and put them in our folded palms. Some nicer vendors would give us one or two extra ling, that felt like hitting a jackpot!
We ran home, drooling, the sharp wooden spikes poking our little palms.
Our grandmas would hack them open one by one. Some mature ling have really hard shells, and would need a few good chops to get them open. Sometimes we could not wait, we would bite into one, only to get poked inside of the mouth.
My grandma always yelled, “Don’t wipe your hands on your shirt!” The skin of the kind I bought today produces a purple juice that will stay on your shirt as long as the shirt lasts.
Aaah, those good old summer days, eating ling and listening to the cicadas.
*Retrieved on September 29, 2010 from http://www.ourchinese.org/zidian/%E8%8F%B1.htm