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Toon leaves grow on the Toon tree, also known as the Chinese cedar or Chinese mahogany tree. The branches produce five to 10 pairs of long leaflets that can range in color from a dark green to crimson and deep purple. The leaves can grow up to 70cm in length, but are picked when they reach 20cm since they are most tender at this young stage. The shoots and tender young leaves resemble those of a young tomato plant and are enjoyed for their umami flavor. Toon leaves are distinctly aromatic, offering an onion-like aroma when fresh, and they impart a bolder onion flavor when cooked.
Toon leaves are available year-round with a peak season in the spring.
Toon leaves are botanically classified as Toona sinensis within the Meliaceae family. The Toon tree is commonly grown for timber, or as an ornamental plant that flowers in the summer. Toon leaves are most commonly used in China, where it is cultivated as a vegetable or micro-green.
Toon leaves are a good source of antioxidants. They also contain beta-carotene, vitamin E, riboflavin, folic acid, calcium, iron and protein.
One of the most common culinary applications for Toon leaves is to stir-fry them with eggs, but they are also often used to make dumplings. Chopped Toon leaves can be cooked and combined with sesame oil, salt and sugar to form a paste, which can be stored in the refrigerator for two months. The paste can be used as a condiment, or as a flavoring for noodle and tofu dishes. Because Toon leaves are a spring vegetable, they are often pickled, dried or frozen in order to store them for later use.
Young Toon leaves are highly prized as a vegetable in China. To the Chinese, the appearance of Toon leaf buds means that winter has loosened its grip and spring has officially begun. The Mandarin name for Toon leaves is Xiangchun, which means "fragrance of spring". The Toon leaf, bark, fruit and roots are all used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Toon leaves, in particular, are said to help lower blood sugar, defend the body against oxygen loss, and prevent women's fertility problems.
Toon leaves are native to eastern and southeastern Asia. The Toon tree is believed to have originated in China, where it grows wild on hillside slopes, and is also found in home gardens. Toon leaves have been eaten in China since around the time of the Han Dynasty, when they found favor with high-ranking officials and wealthy families. The Toon tree is also found in North Korea, Nepal, northeastern India, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Botanists have been aware of the plant since the mid-1700s, and believe that it was introduced into Europe around the 1860s. The Toon tree is cold-tolerant and prefers sandy, fertile soil.