Plant an assortment of Asian vegetables in the family garden or in any suitable pot and you'll soon be able to stir up an inexpensive batch of fresh, flavorful food.
Chinese salad greens, for example, "thrive in both vegetable and flower gardens, are low in calories, are worth their weight in nutrition and are deliciously different from the more familiar greens," Geri Harrington said in Growing Chinese Vegetables in Your Own Backyard (Storey Publishing, updated edition 2009). "They're not in any way limited to Chinese cooking; Chinese vegetables fit in comfortably with familiar American recipes and their use is practically unlimited."
Harrington wrote those words in 1984 but it's even more appropriate now, said Norma Chang, an author and lecturer specializing in Asian plants and cuisine, in the foreword to the new edition of Harrington's book.
"In the intervening years," Chang wrote, "both gardeners and cooks have become increasingly curious about the cuisines of other cultures and increasingly confident in growing foods from the other side of the planet."
Growing Chinese vegetables is no different than trying to grow a new hybrid tomato or corn, although the Asian veggies may look prettier, Harrington said.
"Snow peas are more attractive to grow than English peas; Asian squash are more handsome and more interesting than jack-o'-lanterns. Another difference, especially important to container gardeners, is that Asian vegetables generally seem to be more prolific."
Finding seeds or starter plants has become easier in recent years but still takes some effort, Chang said by phone from her home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"There's more interest building in these plants," Chang said. "People seem to know what they are and what they taste like. Now they want to know more about preparing them."
Call the nearest county extension office for information about hardiness zones, planting dates, proven varietals for your area, and to find out when pests emerge for particular crops so you can avoid them.
"When you reflect that many of the 'American' foods we take for granted — carrots, beets, apples and many more — aren't native to this country, you realize that a foreign vegetable is just one we haven't yet incorporated into our menus," Harrington said.
Using Asian herbs and veggies
Asian vegetables are pleasing to the palate, nutritious — and often overlooked as ingredients in American menus.
Here are some of the most popular Chinese edibles and herbs, and how they might be prepared:
(Brassica campestris L. (Chinensis group), sometimes called Brassica chinensis
Bok choy, also known as pak choi, celery mustard, Chinese chard and spoon cabbage, is one of two subspecies of Chinese cabbage. This group has leafy white stalks with a mild, slightly sweet flavor that complements strong flavors and is popular in stir-fries and soups. Younger plants often are cooked to bring out their tenderness. Bok choy grows best with short days and moderate to cool temperatures.
(Brassica juncea var. rugosa)
Also called gai choy, takana, Chinese or Indian mustard, these greens are nutritious and fast-growing with a pleasantly spicy taste when eaten raw. Young leaves are good in salads; older leaves have a stronger taste, which becomes sweeter when steamed or stir-fried.
(Pisum sativum L. (Macrocarpon group)
Tender and sweet, snow peas taste best when eaten young in their flat pods or before the peas mature. The flavor breaks down quickly after the peas are picked. Use fresh in salads; saute briefly and serve as a side dish. Several varieties of snow peas (also called shid dou, ho lan dou or sugar peas) grow well throughout Florida; consider trying Oregon Sugar Pod or Dwarf Sugar.
(Brassica campestris L. (Pekinensis group), sometimes referred to as Brassica pekinensis)
If you have ever sampled kimchi, the pickled (and fiery) national dish of Korea, you've eaten Napa cabbage (also known as wong bok or hakusai). A vase-shaped cabbage with dark, curly leaves and a white stem, it has a mild bite when eaten raw; cooking sweetens it.
The plant also known as wu tou gan lan, hwa choy or flowering cabbage makes a colorful salad and an even better garnish. "Don't look for it in the vegetable side of seed catalogs," says Norma Chang, a specialist in Asian plants and cuisine. "It's more commonly listed among the flowers." Here in Florida, it's best to plant December through February.
(Raphanus sativus L.)
All parts of the daikon, or winter radish, are edible. It has large leaves and huge roots and is generally cooked, although it's also popular pickled or raw.
Generally smaller and more colorful than its European counterparts, the aubergine (or gie zi) can be grilled, like zucchini, or sauteed with other vegetables. It has a creamy texture and nutty flavor and also can be added unpeeled to stir-fries.
(Brassica alboglabra L.)
A good grower here during the fall and winter, Chinese broccoli (also known as kalian, gai lan or white flowering broccoli) has tender stalks and flavorful leaves. All parts are edible, and it's good for stir-fries, steamed or tossed into salads.
These chives, also called jiu cai, gow choy or Chinese leek, combine the taste of onion with garlic. Sprinkle fresh over salads or use to boost flavor in soups, pasta, eggs or casseroles.
(Coriandrum sativum L.)
Cilantro (also called coriander or Chinese parsley) grows easily in Florida and adds zest to salads or eggs and makes a great seasoning when added toward the end of cooking to stews. Cilantro seeds can be crushed and used in breads and soups. Let the plant flower and it will attract pollinators and beneficial insects to the garden.
Also known as burpless cucumber or huang gua, Asian cucumber grows thin and long and is slightly sweet. It becomes a delicious relish when sliced and marinated in a sweet vinegar and a fine side dish when stuffed and baked.
(Glycine max (L.) Merr.)
You may know this plant as edamame. It's a great appetizer or snack when cooked in the pod and nutty and buttery when eaten fresh from the garden. Pick before the pods turn yellow; it's also an excellent fresh vegetable when eaten as a sprout.
Sources: Associated Press, University of Florida Extension (edis.ifas.ufl.edu)