Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

Seasonal Eating for April, and the Chinese Soli-Lunar Calendar

Ila Bonczek
Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: April 6, 2023
April is a month blessed with warming temperatures and lots of rain. According the Chinese lunisolar calendar, this month is observed in China with special cold dishes and the drinking of tea. (Image: Phamkhanhquynhtrang via Pixabay)

Seasonal eating is an environmentally sound, healthy, common-sense approach to food which has been growing in popularity since the 1970’s. In the purest sense of the term — which also implies eating locally — seasonal eating actually dates back to prehistoric times, when people really had no choice in the matter.

As agriculture developed, civilization advanced, and now we can pretty much get whatever we want from somewhere, any time of the year; but to what effect? In this series, we will look at a different aspect of seasonal eating each month, and how to incorporate the practice in our busy, modern lives.

First, let us examine the fascinating 24 solar terms — a calendar developed thousands of years ago in China for agricultural purposes, but which also dictates traditional seasonal dishes. 

24 solar terms

Originating between eight and ten thousand years ago, agriculture is considered one of the most important stages in the development of human civilization. In ancient China, the careful observation of the sun’s movement through the zodiac led to an agricultural calendar — still in use today — that demarks each successive 15-day period for its unique characteristics regarding climate, seasonal changes and phenology. 

These 24 periods (solar terms) have descriptive and sometimes colorful names, such as “awakening of the insects,” “grain in ear,” “major heat,” and “descent of frost.” This calendar not only guides farming and other activities, it also influences Chinese diners of every sort. 

Specific foods are eaten during each solar term, not only to ensure freshness, but also to keep the body in harmony and balance with nature. April includes the fifth solar term “Clear and Bright” (清明 Qingming) — beginning April 5; and the sixth solar term “Grain Rain” (谷雨 Guyu) — beginning April 20. 

Clear and bright

This period is preceded by a three-day “Cold Food Festival.” As legend has it, Prince Chong’er, suffering in exile, was saved from starvation by Jie Zitui, who cut flesh from his own thigh for a meat soup. Many years later, the prince took power as Duke Wen of Jin State. Remembering Jin, who was living the whole time in seclusion with his mother on Mian Mountain, he made an attempt to find and repay him for his kindness. 

In jealousy, a malicious subject set fire to the mountain, in order to “flush Jie out,” resulting in both Jie and his mother being burned to death. In order to commemorate Jie, the duke banned the use of fire on that day, beginning the lasting tradition of eating only cold food at the onset of Qingming. 

Qingtuan are steamed rice pastries filled with a sweet bean paste. (Image: coolmanjackey via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

These cold foods are prepared in advance and include sweet green rice balls, Qingming cakes, and Qingming zongzi. Sweet green rice balls (青团 qīngtuán) are a soft pastry traditionally made from glutinous rice flour flavored with mugwort leaf, and filled with sweet red bean paste. 

qingming cakes-flickr
Qingming cakes (撒子sāzi) or (寒具 hánjù) — traditionally a crispy, fried scallion roll in the form of a flower. These ones have been steamed, instead. (Image: Joy via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Qingming zongzi are neat triangular packets of sticky rice stuffed with fillings like pork, chestnut and red beans. They are wrapped and cooked in bamboo leaves, which makes them especially convenient to carry on spring outings.  

After the cold food festival, Qingming commences with “Tomb Sweeping Day,” where people show respect to their ancestors. Graves are tidied and freshened up with new plantings, the spirits are offered food, tea or wine, and incense or joss paper is burned in their honor.

The Asian emerald cuckoo, Chrysococcyx maculatus (Image: JJ Harrison via CWikimedia commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Grain rains

Grain rains, starting April 20, is the final solar term of spring according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar. It is marked by the sprouting of duckweed (萍始生 (Píng shǐ shēng) with the rising temperature of shallow waters, and the cuckoos spreading their wings  (鸣鸠拂其羽 Míng jiū fú qí yǔ) to find a mate. These serve as reminders for the agriculture community to start sowing seeds, as they will now have adequate temperature and moisture to germinate. 

In the south, people make a point to drink tea made from the young spring tea leaves during this time to remove excess heat from the body and improve eyesight. According Chinese folktales, Grain Rain tea (谷雨茶, gǔyǔ chá) is so fresh that it could bring a dead man back to life. 

Tender, young shoots of the Chinese Mahogany. (Image: Tencent via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

In northern China, it is customary to eat the young leaves of Chinese mahogany (Toona sinensis) or (香椿 xiāngchūn). Typically cooked with eggs or tofu, this nutritious, tender, leafy vegetable boosts immunity, aids digestion, and promotes healthy skin and hair. This is one of few produce products that remain exclusively seasonal, as the mahogany tree is simply too large to grow in a greenhouse.

Seasonal eating for us?

Of course, eating seasonally is inherently tied to eating locally, so what about those of us not living in China? The principles of keeping in harmony with the seasons can be met anywhere by consuming locally-grown foods, and sticking with traditional, seasonal recipes that rely on the foods that we were once limited to. 

Joining a CSA, supporting your local farmer’s market, starting your own garden or securing a plot at a community garden are all great ways to bring fresh, local produce to your table. 

What is CSA?

Joining a CSA will introduce you both to your real actual farmers and many heritage vegetables that you won’t find in any grocery store. (Image: Michael.Rihani via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

CSA stands for community supported agriculture, a movement which started in the 70’s to help small-scale, often-organic farmers cover operational costs. Membership dues are collected at the start of the season, so the farmers can focus on farming, to bring you the best produce throughout the growing season, and sometimes throughout the year. 

Some CSAs deliver, while many will assign you a pick-up day at the farm. The farm will usually have an email newsletter, which includes recipes for the sometimes-strange-or-unusual produce you receive each week. 

If you’re not ready for such a commitment, visit your local farmer’s market, which is likely to have a wide variety of vendors, offering not only local produce, but also local dairy, meat, honey, cosmetics, and more. 


If you’re up for a rewarding adventure, any sunny yard can become a garden. Even a shady yard (like mine) can grow an impressive amount of produce. Perhaps you aren’t ready to dig up your lawn quite yet; you can get your feet wet by maintaining a small plot at a community garden. These plots are usually ridiculously inexpensive and come with all the essentials. 

Observing nature

There’s also wild edibles… Just take a look at the weeds beginning to pop up, and you can get a very good idea what is good to eat. In my garden, I’m seeing an abundance of wild onions, garlic mustard, garden cress, and dandelions, all of which are extraordinarily nutritious. For those with an impeccably weed-free garden, you can base your diet on the stage your plantings are at.

Of my sown seeds, spinach and kale are well on their way; cilantro, lettuce and swiss chard are off to a good start; and peas have sprouted. I’ve also seen hints of future asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish; a couple of shiitake mushrooms on my mushroom logs; endive that overwintered; and let’s not forget that the hens are laying like there’s no tomorrow, plus it is time to dig up the jerusalem artichoke — a sweet, potato-like root vegetable. 

It’s no coincidence that these are nearly a perfect match to traditional Chinese medicine’s recommended foods to support the liver during this transitional period of spring cleaning: bitter greens like dandelion, endive, cilantro and parsley; pungent alliums like onions and leeks, leafy greens like chard, kale, mustard greens and spinach; radishes, mushrooms, sprouts and yams. 


Now that you have your most nutritious seasonal ingredients nailed down, you can create an endless array of amazing dishes. Here I will share a couple simple and unusual recipes in keeping with the Chinese tradition of Qingming and Guyu.  

Garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata) is an invasive biennial, best harvested before the small white flowers emerge on spiky stalks. (Image: R.A.Nonenmacher via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4. 0)

Garlic mustard with eggs

Even if we had Chinese mahogany, it would be hard to imagine harvesting leaves from this towering tree. Although I’ve never tasted them myself, the young leaves are said to have a rather pungent, somewhat onion-y flavor. What better substitute than garlic mustard? 

This pungent herb grows quickly and invasively, is easy-to-harvest, and phenomenally nutritious. Its name is an accurate description of its flavor, and health benefits include the relief of  asthma, bronchitis, eczema, ulcers and itching. It can also improve appetite and effectively treat wounds.

Garlic mustard can be eaten raw in salads, made into pesto, or lightly cooked. Harvest the whole plant, use the leaves, and compost the roots. A quick steaming will make a tender green companion to fried or poached eggs; or the leaves can also be chopped and added to a scrambled egg (or tofu!) dish, or even egg salad for added flavor and nutrition. 

Dandelion tea

While few of us are growing true tea leaves (Camelia sinensis), we all have access to dandelions. Every part of this so-called “weed” is edible and incredibly nutritious. To make our own version of Guyu tea, we have several options. 

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) flowers are not only good for us, they also provide an important early forage for honeybees. (Image: Zeynel Cebeci via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dandelion flowers are high in antioxidants, and mildly sweet. They can be picked and steeped, one flower per ounce of hot water, for a brew that supports eye health and helps dispel aches. To prevent bitterness, remove the green, bottom part of the flower first. Steep, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes, strain, and enjoy. 

Dandelion leaves are as rich in vitamins and minerals as they are bitter. A tea made from either fresh or dried leaves will stimulate digestion, act as a diuretic, and quite possibly wake the dead. To dry dandelion leaves, collect, wash, and place them in a warm, well-ventilated area, out of direct sun. I like to place drying herbs in the back window of my car, covered with a light tea-towel. 

Use 2 teaspoons of dried dandelion leaf — or a handful of fresh leaves — in 8 ounces of hot water. Steep, covered, for 10 minutes; strain, and sweeten if you must. 

Dandelion roots support liver function, and some studies suggest they may be helpful in boosting immunity, lowering cholesterol, and reducing inflammation. 

You can brew raw roots, but their flavor is greatly improved with roasting. If you’re going to go to the trouble of digging up, washing, and drying these roots, you may as well go the whole nine yards and toast them to boot — for an herbal brew that is similar to coffee. 

Chop the clean roots to speed drying. Once they are dry, roast them in a dry pan over medium heat until golden brown. Store the toasted roots in an airtight container. 

To make your tea, simmer 1 tablespoon per 12 ounces of water for a good 20-30 minutes, to release all the beneficial compounds. Some of the water will be cooked away, so you should have a normal cupful when it’s done. Strain your home-made coffee alternative into a mug, and Welcome to Wild Edibles 101!