With the arrival of spring comes the desire to go outside and explore, and one of my favorite things to do is visit the farmer's markets and peruse the stands for new vegetables to try, a passion I've diligently documented in the Spring Discovery series on this website. With the help of friends and vegetable-focused cookbooks, I've made many delicious discoveries since moving to America from Malaysia.
This year, my focus turns to Asian vegetables, some I grew up eating and took for granted, some I've known about but lost track of since I moved due to name inconsistencies or differences in appearance, and some completely new to me. It's time to get reacquainted with some old friends and make new ones. I feel extremely lucky to be in sunny California, where the growing season is long and the foodways rich in diversity, making it possible for me to find vegetables and ingredients to cook Asian food at home throughout the year.
Spring is when the farmer's markets I frequent in the San Francisco Bay Area start to get exciting again after the winter lull, and every visit seems to reward with new heaping piles of freshly harvested vegetables. I make it a point to look out for farmers that specialize in Asian vegetables, and to the individuals who man the stands I direct questions about the produce: what it's called, how to pick, how to cook, what it tastes like.
I don't always get clear answers. What I know in Cantonese as saan choy, for instance, can be called Malabar spinach or bayam or just labelled spinach although it doesn't look exactly like the triple-washed Western spinach I eat raw in my salads. This is why the newly-released The Chinese Kitchen Garden by Wendy Kiang-Spray came at such an opportune time.
"Spring has a quality that is distinct from other times of the year. The air is filled with a sweet earthiness, cool rains are refreshing, morning mists linger, and warm days breathe life into new foliage and budding blossoms," so begins the Spring chapter in the book organized by seasons.
The book is first and foremost about gardening with a sharp focus on 38 (a lucky number!) Chinese vegetables like long beans, eggplant, and lotus root told through the experience of a first-generation Chinese American who learned about traditional methods of farming and cooking from her parents.
My own attempt at vegetable gardening is amateur at best and what I know about growing stuff is mostly gained from volunteering regularly at a local farm (which by the way is growing Malaysian eggplant this season!), so this book is both informative and inspiring.
The growing information provided by Wendy is succinct and the accompanying kitchen tips plus recipes give the book a nice sense of completion. She clearly outlines the different gardening opportunities that present themselves in different seasons, providing a broad view for planning purposes. There's also a wealth of information on Wendy's blog that you don't want to miss.
Since I learned to cook from a Cantonese dad, I find the Mandarin and Cantonese names of the vegetables in the book particularly helpful to identify the vegetables I ate in Malaysia with their American names. In my previous attempt to distinguish between green garlic, garlic scapes, spring onion, green onion, and scallions (you can read the post here), I had wondered about where my similar-looking favorite vegetable 'gao choy fa' fit in. It wasn't until I read this book that I knew for sure it's called garlic chives and can be grown here. Yippie.
Get to Know These Common Asian Greens
In this post, I'd like to explore some of the Asian leafy greens I commonly find in farmer's markets. You will find below a quick introduction and a recipe (that I learned from my dad, and which is not too different from the recipe by Wendy's mom in the book) for an extremely easy way to enjoy them.
Choy translates to 'vegetable' in Cantonese, and Bok Choy is probably the most well-known Chinese vegetable in the Western world. Mild-tasting and versatile, no wonder it is the token Asian green and is often found in noodle soups, braises, and stir-fries. For full-size or more mature and larger bok choy, pull the the stalks apart before cooking. It is also a good idea to separate the white stalk from the top green leaf as the thicker sections may require longer cooking time. Baby bok choy, however, can usually be cooked whole.
Choy Sum, which translates to 'heart of the vegetable' in Cantonese, is easily recognized by its attractive small yellow flowers, which can be eaten together with the leaves, shoots, and stalks. According to The Chinese Kitchen Garden, it is usually harvested just before the flower buds begin to appear for the most tender and sweet-tasting leaves and stalks, but I tend to buy it with the flowers because I enjoy the pop of color in my dish. It cooks easily and tastes wonderful when quickly stir-fried or added to soups at the end. To get an even crunch, cut the stems from the leaves and cook the stems first before the leaves.
Also labeled as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale, Gai Lan is a hardier green than choy sum with thick fleshy stems and broad leaves that retain a lovely tender crunch when cooked perfectly. Its flavor has been compared to broccoli and kale, hence the labels, but it actually tastes much milder. What we know as broccolini is in fact a hybrid of gai lan and broccoli. Gai lan is usually cooked simply and dressed lightly, as you can see in the easy recipe I'm sharing below, to fully enjoy its gentle green flavor and pleasant texture.
Gai Lan (Chinese Broccoli) with Garlic
A common and easy way to enjoy Asian leafy greens like gai lan, choy sum, and bok choy is to quickly boil them and top with oyster sauce and flash-fried garlic. This dish found its way on the dining table a lot when I was growing up. My dad is a big fan of garlic so I tend to use a lot of garlic, including whole cloves. Fear not, cooking garlic greatly mellows its peppery taste, and as my dad would say, "It's good for your health!" For vegetarians, use vegetarian oyster sauce, usually made from mushrooms, or hoisin sauce, though bear in mind that it will make the dish much sweeter. This recipe serves 4 and is usually eaten family style with other dishes.
1 pound (450g) gai lan or other Asian greens like, choy sum and bok choy
1/4 cup oyster sauce or vegetarian oyster sauce
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 cloves garlic, chopped
5 cloves garlic, lightly smashed and left whole (optional)
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
Wash the gai lan under running water. Trim about 1-inch from the thick ends of the stems and discard. If any of the bunches are too big, you can pluck some of the leaves to thin them out.
Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add the gai lan and cook until tender, about 2 to 3 minutes or until a fork can easily pierce the stems. The gai lan should still retain a gentle bite. Turn off the heat. With a pair of tongs, remove the gai lan from the water and arrange on a serving plate. It's not a problem if they are a little wet. Top with the oyster sauce or vegetarian mushroom sauce.
In a frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat. If using whole garlic, add them to the oil now and fry them, turning frequently, for about 1 minute. Then add the chopped garlic and fry for another 1 minute. The garlic should be golden and fragrant.
Pour the oil and garlic onto the gai lan. Drizzle with sesame oil if using. Serve immediately with rice.