November 21, 2012

A Guide to Asian Vegetables

By Janet McGarry

Regular shoppers of Chue’s Farm stand are no strangers to bok choy, Chinese long beans, and daikon radish, but it took some education to introduce uninitiated eaters to the world of Asian vegetables.

“For the first few years, we had to explain to customers how to cook and use them,” says Kong Moua, one of eleven siblings who run Chue’s Farm with their parents, Peter and Cha. “The vegetables were something different that they were not accustomed to eating. Once they tried them, they liked them.”

Based in Fresno, where more than 2,000 acres of Asian vegetables are grown, the Mouas are part of the country’s largest community of Hmong people. “People assume that we are Chinese or maybe Mongolian,” Kong laughs as he explains common misunderstandings about the Hmong. In fact, the Hmong people are an ethnic Laotian minority. Thousands of Hmong immigrated to the United States in the 1970s as political refugees, escaping persecution after the Vietnam War.

When the Moua family started selling Asian specialty vegetables and herbs at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in 1992, most of their customers were Asian. Today, the farm’s customers are a more heterogeneous group. A few vegetables, such as bitter melon, are still purchased mostly by Asian customers, though they’re winning new converts, especially among chefs. “Bitter melons are an acquired taste,” admits Kong.

Here’s a brief guide to some of the Asian vegetables you’ll find at the market. Asian greens and root vegetables grow best in the fall through the winter. Heat-loving squash and beans are harvested in the late summer and fall months.

Bok choy: All parts of this “Chinese cabbage”—stalks, leaves, and young flowering shoots—are edible when young or mature. Many bok choy varieties have dark green leaves and firm white stalks that are crunchy and juicy with a cabbage-like taste. Baby bok choy is tender and delicious sautéed with garlic or added to soups.

Napa cabbage: Also known as “Chinese cabbage,” Napa cabbage is truer to the description, with its tight, white head and mild flavor, which is well-suited to slaws and sautés.

Mizuna: Mizuna probably originated in China but has been grown in Japan since ancient times. It has feathery, frond-like bright green leaves that taste similar to arugula but are milder and sweeter. It’s often eaten raw in salads, but the leaves can also be steamed, sautéed, or pickled.

Tatsoi: Tatsoi’s round, dark green leaves grow close to the ground in tight little circles, creating pretty rosettes. The tender greens have a mustardy taste and can be eaten raw or lightly cooked in soups.

Chinese broccoli: In contrast to the Italian broccoli found in most American markets, Chinese broccoli, or gai lan, has thin stems, small flower buds, and blue-green leaves. The crunchy stems, which are more tender and sweet than the Italian variety, are rich in calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.

Yu choy: With its thin stalks and bright yellow flowers, yu choy is similar to broccoli rabe but sweeter. Look for flower buds that are tight and just beginning to bloom. The crunchy stalks can be sautéed with garlic or oyster sauce.

Daikon radish: Daikon, which means “great root” in Japanese, has a crispy, crunchy texture with a sweeter, less pungent flavor than most radishes. It’s a common ingredient in many Asian dishes, including Korean kimchi and Japanese pickles. Daikon can be shredded and eaten raw, or added to stews and soups, like other root vegetables. Its young leaves and seeds, which taste slightly peppery, are also edible.

Taro: Taro tubers are starchy with a sweet, subtle taste similar to a potato but slightly nutty like a chestnut. This “potato of the tropics” is customarily offered during the Japanese moon-viewing tradition in September, and taro-filled mooncakes are eaten at the Chinese New Year celebration.

Lemongrass: Lemongrass is a heat-loving perennial with a tall, woody stalk, grassy leaves, and a bulbous end. The white inner stem six inches above the base is the part most used in cooking. When bruised, it releases a lemony flavor, popular in Thai cuisine. Lemongrass, like bay leaf, is typically removed from a dish before eating.

Winter melon: Winter melon has green skin covered with a waxy coating, giving it the name “wax gourd.” Chinese chefs hollow out the melons, carve dragons or other symbols into their waxy skins, and use them as decorative soup bowls. Winter melons are used in stir-fries and soups, but the flesh can also be dried and crystallized. Candied winter melon is often eaten at Chinese New Year.

Bitter melon: Bitter melon looks like a cucumber with light green, warty, wrinkled skin. Its bitter taste is caused by quinine, which has medicinal qualities. Blanching or salting reduces the melon’s bitterness. Mature melons can be cooked unpeeled, but their seeds and pith should be removed. Bitter melon is often stuffed with meat or seafood, used in curries, or added to stir-fries.

Moqua: Shaped like a cucumber with splotchy green skin, this “hairy gourd” has a light, neutral flavor like a zucchini, which makes it a versatile cucurbit to cook with. It can also be pickled or used to make a refreshing drink. The fuzzy covering on young gourds, which have the best texture, can be removed by scrubbing or peeling.

Sinqua: Also known as “luffa,” sinqua can be found in angled and smooth varieties. Angled luffa looks like a zucchini with ridges that run lengthwise. Typically eaten when it’s young, it also tastes a bit like zucchini but sweeter. Its spongy texture soaks up the flavor of foods it’s cooked with. Smooth luffa, when grown to maturity and soaked in bleach, peeled, and dried, can be used as a household scrubber—the “loofah sponge.”

Opo: The “bottle gourd” has pale green skin and a mild taste. The po qwa variety is frequently used in stir-fries and soups, but it can also be hollowed out, stuffed, and baked. In Japan, dried strips of the gourd’s flesh, kampyo, are used to flavor maki sushi and to tie bundles of food for steaming.

Chinese long bean: Also called “yardlong beans” because they can grow up to three feet long, these beans are immature cow pea pods (related to black-eyed peas). Chinese long beans are denser and crunchier than green beans and can be found in different colors, from light and dark green to purple. 

Look for Chue’s Farm stand in front of the Ferry Building at the Saturday and Tuesday markets.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »