Asian Vegetables, Explore the East in Your Own Kitchen
For many years, I have delighted in experimenting with gourds, chrysanthemum leaves, tiny green eggplants, and a seemingly endless variety of leafy greens, beyond lettuce, spinach and chard. In summer, our farmer's markets are a treasure trove of Asian vegetables, grown by local Hmong farmers. At their stands, you will see the usual tomatoes and kale, alongside exotic herbs, small green eggplants, giant squash-like gourds, and more. I even teach a class on using the Asian veggies from our local farmers market, where I meet people who start out baffled and intimidated by the new vegetables, and leave ready to explore new territory. I take two approaches with these vegetables. The first is to seek out their traditional uses, and find an authentic recipe or two to see how they are usually prepared. When a culinary culture has put in a thousand years or so figuring out how to flavor something, you know that will be worth trying. Then, when I have a feel for them, I like to try using them in other styles of cooking, like, putting Thai eggplants in a French dish, or Chinese gourds in a Mexican meal. The first way respects tradition, and the second may appeal to the creative in you.
The first category of veggies is the squashes, melons and gourds. Bottle gourds and fuzzy melons are shaped like stubby, fat baseball bats, and often 2 or 3 feet long. They remind me of a firmer, less seedy zucchini, and can be used similarly. Chayote, a light green vegetable shaped like a flattened pear with a deep dimple in its base, is sometimes called Mirliton. The chayote is very mild and juicy, and has a large, flat pit in the center. It's best lightly steamed or sautéed. Large, deep green watermelon-shaped winter melons are actually not sweet at all, and not really edible raw, either. Their white flesh is usually simmered in soups, similar to squash.
Eggplants are such a bonanza at the Asian stands that it is worth mentioning the profusion of varieties. Long, thin purple ones, short, miniature versions of the familiar globe, and white, speckled or green eggplants abound. The real exotica are the Thai variety. Golf ball-sized green Thai eggplants have less bitterness and small, easy to eat seeds. Tiny, pea-sized eggplants sometimes called "bitter balls" are prized for simply slicing in half and floating in Thai curries. These bitter eggplants, are, of course, quite bitter, and create a dramatic contrast to the creamy curry when you bite into them.
If I see a bundle of long, thin green beans, I usually buy them. They are called yard-long beans, and they are like a nutty tasty version of haricot verts (thin French green beans. You don't have to tip or string them, just chop. I like these in anything where green beans go, as well as stir fries, salads, and soup.
For me, the Asian greens and cabbages veggie category offers some of the most unexpected and delightful finds. Gai lan, which looks like leafy broccoli with tiny yellow flowers, is a wonderful, sweet green, that you may have had in dim sum, slathered with oyster sauce. Water spinach, with long stems and pointed leaves, is a slightly meatier version of spinach, while Chinese spinach, with thick, hollow stems and leaves, has a much stronger taste, and should definitely be cooked. Nappa cabbage, with its crinkly, light green tips and crunchy white base is a perfect salad cabbage, or for using in stir fries and soups. Many variations on mustard greens might be on display, which differ from kale and chard with their peppery bite. Mustards are often stir fried or added to soups, pickled or made into kim chee, and used in Indian curries. You might also come across Chinese leaf celery, which has thin stalks and a profusion of leaves. When cooking with any unfamiliar green, taste it and decide if it is cabbagey, or whether it is mild and tender enough to eat raw. Most greens are great in stir fries or soups.
Some fresh Asian herbs might look unfamiliar, too. You might see cilantro is sold in bunches with the roots still attached—that is because the roots are pounded into curry pastes in Thai cuisine. Next to the cilantro, look for bunches of Holy, Thai or another Asian basil, which have flatter leaves, purple veins and taste like Italian basil with some anise notes. Occasionally available at my market is a large, sawtooth-edged leaf called Culantro, a minty, sturdy version of cilantro that is best cooked in with the dish for a few minutes, instead of added raw at the end. Fresh lemongrass, which looks like an oversized, white scallion and smells like lemon is used either finely minced or pounded in curries and Vietnamese dishes, or is cut into lengths to simmer in soups and infuse them with lemon flavor. The fibrous lemongrass is like a bay leaf, in that you either remove it or just avoid eating it. Chrysanthemum leaves, with their characteristic pine-ish scent and flavor, are traditionally simmered in soups, notably in Japan.
In this big world of ours, there are many countries I may never have a chance to visit and foods I may never get to try. I like to, however, stretch my boundaries at home with some of the exotic foods our vibrant melting-pot of cultures brings to us. My farmers' market is a great place for ingredients, information (from the growers) and inspiration. Here are a few Asian recipes inspired by a trip to my farmers' market!
- This simple Rice Noodles with Holy Basil Pesto recipe is a great dish to explore the nuances of the most popular basil in Thai cooking.
- In this Thai Roast Beef and Herb Salad, you get a feel for the kind of quick and easy meals that people put on the menu in the tropics.
- When you taste the Red Curry Shrimp and Kabocha Squash, you may fall for the meaty, sweet kabocha for all your squash needs.