Gardening 101: The Good Fortune of Asian Vegetables

You may not live in Chiang Mai, or even south of the Mason-Dixon line, but there are plenty of Asian crops that can handle cool weather.
asian vegetables

I used to think that discussions about cooking were among the best of what I call backyard-fence conversations. You know that scene: neighbors with elbows perched on the picket fence that divides their yards, gabbing passionately about the most everyday things. Cooks, I think, have that urge in their DNA. You say “I made lasagna last night,” and inevitably every person within shouting distance is going to chime in about how they make theirs, which tomatoes are best, how you should always use such-and-such a mozzarella.

And gardeners? Just ask any one of them about what they have in the soil or how, say, they get rid of slugs, and the conversation begins; it rarely ends until at least four gardeners are involved. The gardening world is one big backyard fence. And this week, when the conversation turned to Asian vegetables, that fence stretched from the Woodstock, New York, garden of Gourmet’s senior food/travel editor Alexis Touchet down to New Orleans, then crossed the pond to England and reached all the way to the Great Wall.

It started with me catching a cold and feeling that the only thing to kick it would be a bowl of food editor Ruth Cousineau’s spicy Thai-style chicken soup. Wouldn’t it be incredible, I thought, if Ruth would show up at my door with a pot already made? And then, slipping from impossible dream to garden fantasy: Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of going to the store for the ingredients, I could not only make the soup with the snow peas, Thai basil and chiles, garlic, tomatoes, and shallots I’m already growing, but I could also throw in homegrown ginger and lemongrass? Living in the Northeast, though, can I even grow lemongrass (a tropical-climate plant)?

Time to take it to the backyard fence. First stop, Alexis, who, it seems to me, has never met an Asian dish she couldn’t cook and never met an ingredient she wouldn’t at least try to grow in her home garden. She’s planted lemongrass and ginger, she said, but it’s just too cold in upstate New York to leave these perennials in the ground—she had to dig them up, plant them in pots, and bring them indoors when the temperature dipped. So it was with her turmeric and citrusy galangal, and after a while her house began to look like a spice market. Now she sticks with the Asian vegetables that are tough enough to make it outdoors in the Catskills: greens like pak choi and bok choy, as well as Japanese red mustard (good when simply braised with garlic), long beans (which are well suited to a pork stir-fry, radishes, and some lemon cucumbers, which, when they turn light yellow, are delicious eaten out of hand with just a little salt. (Another gardening pal, Lisa Kelsey, grows tender-skinned Satsuki cucumbers), which, she says, never grow bitter; her kids love to pick and eat them on the spot.)

Alexis is a Louisiana native who grew up helping out in her grandfather’s garden, picking beans and okra and figs. Granddad was “an ornery old guy,” she says, “and possibly a bootlegger,” but the man had some great crops. The hot, humid South, she adds, with a hint of nostalgia, is where it’s at in this country for growing a wider variety of Asian vegetables.

The subject of the South always reminds me to call senior articles editor Jane Daniels Lear, who was born in Georgia and is active in the Southern Foodways Alliance. The conversation continues as Jane tells me that a terrific source for southern farming information is the New Orleans Food and Farm Network (more on New Orleans growers next week) and that one of the best books on growing Asian vegetables is Joy Larkcom’s Oriental Vegetables: The Complete Guide for the Gardening Cook.

Larkcom, an Englishwoman and a Royal Horticultural Society medalist who was once named Britain’s Garden Writer of the Year, has, indeed, written an everything-you-need-to-know guide that should probably be on the bookshelf of anyone who wants to grow Asian produce. She confirms that the Brassica family—which includes everything from Gai lan (Chinese broccoli) to tatsoi (Rosette pak choi) to kabu (Japanese white turnips)—is a better bet for growers in temperate climates. She also notes that hardy yard long beans (Chang dou, in Mandarin), with their dramatically droopy green or purple pods, are flavorful when stir-fried, and their leaves and stems are also edible.

Yard long beans climbed up strings last summer in the Jersey City backyard of former Gourmet food editor Lillian Chou, who is now living in Beijing while perfecting her Mandarin, eating every street food she can find, and running a marathon along the Great Wall. Checking in with her along the electronic backyard fence, she says that she also had success with mizuna greens, and joins the fans of the Asian cucumber, “which are thin, far more crisp and sweet than Western varieties.” Lillian recommends California’s venerable Kitazawa Seed Company for its variety and quality. My old favorite Johnny’s Seeds also has a surprisingly good selection of Asian vegetables.

What really rocked Lillian’s Chinese-American heart, though, were the fruit trees she planted—Japanese fuyu persimmon and fig—and the barely leafing stalks of a goji berry bush, which was given to her by her Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor. “I planted the goji stalks directly into the ground and they rooted, but because it was so late in the season, I never got berries,” Lillian explains. “The leaves are round and bitter and delicious, and incredibly good for your health—my TCM doctor recommended them for medicinal reasons. I sautéed them with garlic and oil, or added them into black-chicken soup when I was feeling lousy.”

What started with a pot of chicken soup ends with a pot of chicken soup, although it’s spilled into an Asian produce free-for-all. But when you ask people who are both cooks and gardeners about what they love, you’re in for a conversation that just might last into the fall. I’m all ears.

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