Have you ever been at the farmers’ market and found yourself intimidated or confused by the spread of locally grown Asian vegetables—so many leafy items displayed that you have never seen or tried before, right alongside unusual bumpy squash and purple and green beans that are so long they hang off market tables? Navigating the Asian vegetables can be a bit overwhelming. But it is worth your attention as most of them are grown for their nutrient value, tenderness and flavor, and a good portion are from heirloom seed. Knowing the basics will open a whole new culinary world of flavor, texture and health.
We at Serendipity Farms have been growing a few varieties of Asian vegetables—we’ve played around with pea tendrils, mustard greens, bok choy, tatsoi, mizuna and amaranth greens. It takes a lot of hand holding and free samples to convince shoppers to try something new, along with weeks of returning to the farm with unsold produce before a new green catches on, if ever. (This season I decided we would not be planting baby green mustard again!) But we find they are finally gaining traction with shoppers.
Some of the most nutritious plants common to Asian cooking are pea greens, otherwise known as pea shoots, pea tendrils, pea sprouts and pea tips. They are prized for their nutritional and medicinal value—they are high in folate, vitamin C, fiber and protease inhibitors that prevent viruses and reduce LDL cholesterol in the blood.
We have been seeing pea greens really grow in popularity in recent years—probably because they are the ones I’m most passionate about! I like to make pea shoot pesto—a bright and tasty springtime spread in which the greens actually taste like peas and combine well with toasted pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. Pea greens are also one of my favorite ingredients for egg dishes—I chop and sauté them in garlic before stuffing them inside an omelet, or scramble with goat cheese or avocado and slices of sundried tomatoes. Often I’ll add pea greens to smoothies because they are flavorful without being overpowering.
New Natives, a certified organic microgreens farm in Corralitos, has been growing baby pea sprouts for many years and selling them at Santa Cruz Farmers’ Markets and grocery stores throughout the Monterey Bay area. As the pea sprouts are young and tender, they are great for eating raw in salads, tacos and sandwiches.
Linda Chu and Chris He of Benito Valley Farm in Hollister grow mature pea greens and a number of other Asian vegetables. Most of the demand for their products comes from conventional produce buyers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the farmers hope to begin distributing their crops locally soon. They are especially seeking wholesale and retail outlets for their CCOF-certified produce. “We are working on packaging the vegetables with other ingredients like oyster sauce and garlic with instructions on how to prepare them, hoping that it helps sell the organic in more of a mainstream market,” Chu says.”
As I walked the farm with them recently I noticed enormous chives growing in their greenhouse—much bigger and wider than the chives I am familiar with. Chu explained that the chives she grows, a variety of garlic chives called gui chai, are eaten like greens because they are flatter and softer. I took the chives home to prepare them with eggs (trying to invoke my version of egg foo young), and noticed they are much more garlicky and juicy than the ones traditionally used to add flavor to a baked potato.
Here are other Asian veggies you may find at your local market. (See p. 24–25 for what some of them look like.)
Ching kang is an heirloom green bok choy, which is a type of Chinese cabbage that is greener and softer than the big hybrids that boast huge, crunchy stems. Chu says the ching kang variety is not a big producer (as is the case with most heirloom varieties) but has more flavor and is one of their biggest sellers. I’ve grown both the red and green hybrid varieties of bok choy and discovered that I really appreciate how the thick stems hold up in rice noodle dishes, offering a texture and crunch that balances out the softness of the noodles. Bok choy is also very healthy for you—like other cruciferous vegetables, it contains nutrients that are said to reduce cancer risks.
Gai lan, known as Chinese kale or sometimes Chinese broccoli, has softer bluish-green, fat and glossy leaves. Unlike kale plants, whose leaves may be harvested several times, the whole gai lan plant is harvested once right before the flower blooms. Chu shared that the leaves are more tender than kale and with a milder flavor, not such an herbaceous taste. Common ways to prepare gai lan are stir fried with ginger and garlic or steamed and served with oyster sauce.
Young yam leaves are mild and tender enough to eat raw in a salad and can be used in any dish where spinach or other greens are called for. Consider tossing them in curries, stews and soups. They also pair well with ginger and soy sauce; steaming them lightly maximizes the nutrient content.
A traditional Korean side dish called namul uses young yam leaves, and is served like a condiment. The leaves are typically blanched, but can also be boiled, sautéed, fermented, dried or steamed before being seasoned with salt, vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, miso paste or perilla oil, a vegetable oil used in Korean cuisine that originates from the seeds of the deulkkae plant.
Yam leaves are super fragile and will not last long after they are harvested, so be sure to use them the same day you buy them, if possible.
An interesting fact about the wild yam plant is that in the 1940s it was found to have a compound that can be converted into natural progesterone. It was one of the first oral contraceptives and is still used in some birth control and creams for naturally balancing hormones. But, not to worry, eating the leaves is not enough to cause hormonal changes. Instead, they are prized for being loaded with vitamins A, C, riboflavin and iron and for containing high levels of polyphenols, which are being studied for their ability to fight prostate cancer.
Wild yam leaves have also been used by native Americans and in Chinese medicine for nausea, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and diabetes. Long ago, the Mayans and Aztecs figured out that the leaves are pain relieving, as well as an excellent food source. In the Philippines, young yam leaves are blended with baby food to increase the nutritional content. If you can get your hands on these wonderful leaves, load up and consider yourself lucky!
Gai choy is a type of Chinese mustard that is harvested when small for salad greens. When mature, it is cooked and commonly eaten with rich meats like lamb and pork or included in soups because of the depth
of peppery and pungent flavor. There are 50 different types of gai choy with many varying flavors and characteristics including bau sin, nan fong, shi-li-hon and chisin. The fleshy green leaves can be crinkled or smooth, yet resemble a cabbage that refuses to form a head. Gai choy has been described as tasting like wasabi and gets stronger when cooked. It is often pickled with star anise, ginger, peppercorns and red chiles. Garlic, cumin, cilantro, fennel and cheesy or creamy sauces pair well with Chinese mustard. If the mustard plant flowers and sets seed, the condiment mustard can be made by smashing the seeds with a mortar and pestle or grinding in a clean coffee grinder, and adding salt and a liquid like beer, fruit juice, vinegar or even just plain water to make a mustard paste.
Mustards are great in crop rotation due to their bio-fumigant properties, which clean the soil of fungal diseases that affect crops like strawberries and tomatoes. So it is no wonder they also have healthful benefits for the human body. Gai choy contains high doses of sinigrin, which is believed to reduce the risk of certain types of cancers. It is popular in Chinese medicine as a reducer of inflammation, a cure for colds and can even be found as a liquid herbal remedy. Besides being grown for food and utilized for natural soil fumigation, gai choy is also being grown by Farm Fuel in Watsonville as a source for biofuel, making it a pretty fabulous plant!
Chinese spinach, also called yu choy mieu, is similar to gai choy because it is also a brassica in the mustard family, but it is harvested for the stalk and green leaves. When tender and young, use similar preparations as with other mustards, however, when mature the yu choy mieu stalks are tangy, bitter and fibrous and need to be cooked to be digestible. Mushrooms and shellfish pair well with Chinese spinach, and adding oyster or fish sauce and black vinegar provides the umami that ties the flavors together.
Amaranth greens are most often green in color, flaunting gorgeous streaks of red and purple. They are grown in many parts of the world, for both the grain and the mild tasting greens. Originating in Mexico, amaranth greens are also common across Asia, Africa and the Caribbean where they are called callaloo, even though the name actually refers to the traditional breakfast dish in Jamaica, where amaranth greens are cooked with chile peppers, onions and spices like cumin. Amaranth tastes similar to spinach and can be used in place of any tender green, while young leaves are best eaten raw and can be added to a salad or used as a microgreen. Compared with kale, amaranth greens have more vitamin K, calcium, folate, iron, zinc, magnesium and potassium—making them a star substitute in green juices and smoothies.
The next time you find yourself at the farmers’ market, think about expanding your horizons and choose an Asian green you have never used before. Be inspired, not intimidated, and ask the market vendors how to prepare their harvest, as the farmers know best how to eat the food they grow. Challenge yourself to try a few. All you need is a few ingredients like sesame oil and garlic to make these vegetables taste delicious. A whole new world awaits!