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Growing and Cooking Asian Vegetables

Category: Plant Ideas & Info, Presenting "The Curious Gardener"

Dorian Winslow

womanswork presents dorian winslow's

the curious gardener

 

We asked Wendy Kiang-Spray, accomplished gardener and cook, to share with our readers some of her wisdom about growing and cooking Asian vegetables.  We are giving away a copy of her book, “The Chinese Kitchen Garden,” in which she introduces growing techniques and family recipes inspired by her parents and grandparents. Wendy is a first-generation Chinese American who grew up watching her parents grow and prepare vegetables in the ways of their homeland. She dedicates her book to them and makes special mention of her maternal grandmother Wan Lan Wong, “a grandmother I did not know but whose spirit inspired and runs through this book,” she writes. Enter to win Wendy’s book (and a pack of edamame bean seeds from Renee’s Garden) by leaving a comment at the end of this article by April 25th.  To keep up with her posts sign on to her facebook page and her award winning “The Chinese Cooking Garden Blog”.

Wendy Kiang-Spray. Photo: Sarah Culver
Growing and Cooking Asian Vegetables by Wendy Kiang-Spray

Everywhere, there are signs of spring. The birds seem noisier, awakening me just before my alarm clock, cherry blossoms line the prettiest streets in my neighborhood, and perennials are poking through dried leaves in front of my house. Throughout home and garden are signs we’re entering the most exciting but busiest season of the year – gardening season. Lists are long but like every gardener I know, I’m not complaining. On my piano are grow lights where seedlings will be babied until the soil warms.  Among the heirloom tomatoes are little pepper plants including the mild shishito peppers that are so delicious roasted, and the spicy hot Thai bird’s eye peppers that are as good thrown in a stir fry as they are dehydrated, crushed, and sprinkled on a plate of pasta and tomato sauce.

Outdoors, I’m seeding rows of the sweet and versatile sugar snaps and snow peas, and I never forget to sow a small patch of snow peas seeds specifically for harvesting as leafy shoots – a favorite delicate Asian spring green that is so good quickly sautéed with a little garlic.

Throughout the summer, I look for any open spaces in the garden where I might be able to squeeze edamame plants in.  These are a healthy family favorite, steamed for a few minutes and piled high in a bowl for snacking. I love shooting the tender soybeans straight into my mouth. The pods can go into the compost.

But Asian vegetables are not just tasty. They are often more nuanced versions of their Western counterparts in other ways too.  The Chinese cucumber is mild, sweet and crisp, and are actually often the long slim cucumbers sold as “burpless” because they’re more digestible as well. The Chinese long bean is a beautiful green or purple bean that is literally four times the bean sold in the supermarket (in length, for sure!). Japanese eggplants are slender and beautiful, and don’t have the bitterness that globe eggplants sometimes do.

For gardeners who want to look beyond their trusty favorites every year, adding some new tastes might be just the thing to create some excitement in the garden.  The truly bitter tasting bitter melon would be the best choice for the most adventurous gardening cooks. The bumpy fruits look super exotic and the taste is unlike anything else. The numerous health benefits also make the fruit worth trying.

If that’s a bit too wild, luffa gourds are an easy way to venture into the world of Asian vegetables. You can use them just like summer squash. Harvest early for best taste, but if you miss some of these fast-growing gourds, leave them on the vine till frost and you’ll find they’ve magically transformed into the same scrubby bath sponges you buy at the store! My family prefers the long skinny “angled” type for eating, but if you’d like to grow for eating and sponges, look for luffa gourds of the “dishcloth”, “sponge” or “smooth” type.  These are shorter but wider and have the classic luffa sponge shape.

Ready to give it a go? Find seeds for these and most of the other vegetables listed in my book The Chinese Kitchen Garden at online suppliers such as Renee’s Garden Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, or Kitazawa Seed Company. Or ask your local seed supplier if they can order what you need.  When you’re ready to harvest, consult The Chinese Kitchen Garden for tips on how to cook these nutritious and delicious vegetables in my family’s favorite recipes, or to get tips on how to use them in your own!

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Photo: Wendy Kiang-Spray

Tom Yum Kung

As a gardener in a colder zone, I grow the fragrant and versatile lemongrass as an annual. One of my favorite ideas is to use the tall sturdy grass as my “thriller” in my decorative thriller, filler, spiller combination in the large container on my front porch.  This decorative and edible combo allows me to put together one of my Thai soups, tom yum kung.  Tom yum soup is a perfect blend of the most common Thai herbs and vegetables.  Don’t have it all in your garden?  Most of these ingredients can be found in Asian supermarkets.  Not only is this soup delicious, it may have health benefits.  Many of the ingredients such as shallots, chili peppers, lemongrass and galangal are touted as having immune-boosting properties.  Try it tonight or the next time you’re fighting a cold.  Serves 4.

6 cups chicken stock

2 stalks lemongrass, cut into 5 inch sections, and bruised with a mallet

1 inch piece of galangal or ginger root, sliced

3 shallots, cut in half and crushed with the back of a knife

4 kaffir lime leaves

1 8-ounce can of straw mushrooms, rinsed

2 chili peppers, chopped

1 tablespoon chili paste

12 Large shrimp, peeled tail-on and deveined

1 lime, juiced

2 tablespoons brown sugar

3 tablespoons fish sauce

Handful of cilantro, coarsely chopped

Bring chicken stock to a boil over medium high heat.  Add lemongrass sections, galangal and shallots.  Tear the kaffir lime leaves halfway and add to pot.  Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.  Add straw mushrooms, chopped chili peppers, chili paste, shrimp.  Add lime juice, sugar, fish sauce.  Simmer for a few minutes more until shrimp is cooked.  Remove from heat.   Garnish with cilantro.

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26 thoughts on “Growing and Cooking Asian Vegetables

  1. Beautiful foods right out of the garden to the kitchen. I live in Maine, so it’s really nice to hear about cold-season growing, and trying foreign plants that favor the colder climates. ow I want to grow Lemongrass!

  2. I’m so excited to find this site !! I’ll certainly be adding loofas and edamame to my garden this year, and the soup is already on my ‘Today’s List’ !!

  3. Soups are so comforting and the veggies and herbs are the best part! I grow many herbs in my garden.

  4. Definitely planting Chinese eggplant in my garden. Now I know why burpless cucumbers got their name. Thank you for the recipe. Tom Yum Kong is one of my favorite soups!

  5. We cook Thai food often, and try to raise Asian greens in the Pacific Northwest. 2019 has been a great year for forest-grown oyster mushrooms!

  6. Yes, please! I am Asian American – but my kitchen normally only sees the American – although I love and cherish my Asian roots and all the wonderful food. Thanks for the inspiration and kick in the pants – I definitely need to start doing this!

  7. I have fallen in love with Asian greens; so easy to grow and so delicious. If I don’t win, I am definitely going to track down Wendy’s book anyway!

  8. A lovely story on gardening. Brings back wonderful memories of gardening with my Hungarian grandfather at the age of 6. He inspired my love of gardening. I now garden with my 3 & 5 year old grandchildren. I have grown both Japanese egg plants and the luffa gourd. I enjoy different cultural vegetables in the garden. Thank you for sharing. I would love to follow Wendy.

  9. Our local Farmers Markets are just starting to open now, and I’ve waited impatiently all winter to get some really FRESH vegetables, especially the unique Asian ones one vendor comes to sell. Maybe this is the year I will try to grow some of my own, now that this blog gives me some great resources for seeds! Happy growing and happy eating!

  10. What an interesting topic. I can’t wait to get the book and read it.
    I am always looking for new ideas for the garden.
    Sometimes you get stuck planting the same vegetables.
    This is the year to shake thing up.

  11. Great info! Tom Yum is one of my favorite soups! Learned to love it when I lived at a Thai meditation center/temple in Michigan. I developed a meditation garden for the property.
    Wish I could find a reliable source for fresh galangal to add to homemade fresh Tom Yum.
    Wondering if it can be grow in zone 6?

  12. The description of the vegetables are so inviting. It is always a joy to try something new, especially something healthful and mindful.

  13. Love it. I’ll will be making this for sure.
    Just bought a pot of lemon grass. Will report and grow on my back porch were all my other herbs thrive so nicely ?

  14. As an Okinawan American I’m very curious about the bitter melon that our relatives in Okinawa grow and eat on a daily basis that contributes to them being very healthy and happy. I may give it a try in my garden this year.

  15. The only Asian food I grow in my garden is Thai basil. This inspiring post has made me want to try several of her suggestions. I have so many pretty Japanese and Chinese bowls, plates and lovely chopsticks and soup spoons why not grow and serve these exciting foods on/in them!

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