Asian Delights - Part I
By Judy Heyer
Copyright August, 2006 by Judy Heyer
Stuck in a rut? Tired of growing the same old vegetables year in and year out? Asian vegetables can open up a whole new world for you. Below are four interesting vegetables that are versatile, nutritious, and no more difficult to grow than their Western counterparts.
1. Brassica pekinensis: Siew Choy, Chinese Celery, Chinese Cabbage
This heading, cylindrical Chinese cabbage more closely resembles Cos or Romaine lettuce than our idea of a cabbage. It has pale to medium-green crinkly leaves that are loosely formed around an inner core or 'heart'. The leaves and stalks are crisp and have a mild, sweet taste. Heads reach a height of 15" - 18", approximately 50 to 80 days after sowing, with some heads weighing up to 10 lbs. Inner leaves can be blanched - simply tie the head loosely with string once the heart begins to form.
Chinese Cabbage is a cool weather crop that grows at a more vigorous rate than regular cabbage. It is very sensitive to bolting - heat or insufficient water may cause the plant to go to seed. Sow the seeds in very early spring, or even better, as a fall crop.
Like its Western counterparts, Chinese cabbages are heavy feeders and require a rich, fertile soil. Dig in well-rotted manure or , then sow the seeds half an inch deep, 4" apart. Once the seedlings have reached a height of 6", thin to a spacing of 10"-12". Keep them well watered as the plants need a steady supply of moisture to remain tender. A mulch of hay or other material will help retain moisture. Fertilize with manure tea or every two or three weeks for optimum results.
For a fall crop, plant the seeds in mid-July, or three months before the first expected frost in your area. Chinese cabbages are fairly cold tolerant and a light frost will not damage the plants. An added bonus to fall crops - insects tend to less damage as their breeding cycles are over. This doesn't apply to the ubiquitous slug, of course, who is always ready, willing and able.
Harvest by cutting the plant off at the base. Leaves are mild-tasting and can be used for cole slaw or added to salads - the crunchy rib of the leaf adds an interesting texture to a tossed salad. If adding chopped leaves to soup, keep in mind they require less cooking time than regular cabbage - only a minute or two. Leaves can also be lightly sautéed in sesame oil, add a dash or two of spicy Szechwan sauce, toss in a few shrimp and end up with a truly delectable meal!
2. Edible Chrysanthemum (Shungiku) Chop Suey Greens
Shungiku is a milder, edible 'cousin' of the chrysanthemum, with a similar leaf and scent. Very easy to grow, but it has a pronounced "chrysanthemum" flavour that may not be to everyone's taste.
Plant in early spring for a summer harvest, or in late summer for an autumn harvest. Sow thickly, and thin the plants to 4" apart. To obtain a mild flavour, grow them in cool weather. Harvesting can begin when the plant is 4" - 5" high. The flavour is more pronounced once the plant begins to bloom.
The dark green leaves of Shungiku are high in vitamin C. The tips of the plant may be used for flavouring, or in a combination with other greens.
3. B. juncea foliosa (Gai Choy) Chinese Mustard Greens
Gai choy is remarkably easy to grow and matures in only 40 days. The plants are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, and can be used as a "spring tonic".
Chinese mustard greens are not as pungent as regular mustard, and make a great cut-and-come-again crop. Plant early in spring or in late August for a fall crop. If broadcasting the seeds as a cut-and-come-again crop, they can be sown fairly thickly, otherwise sow them a half inch deep in fertile soil, thinning to 10" - 12" apart. A manure tea applied at midseason will boost the plants along. Plants require frequent watering to keep the greens tender and to ensure a good harvest. Hot weather will cause the plants to bolt just like regular mustard. Soil requirements are similar to other Oriental greens.
The younger, tender leaves can be used like lettuce and chopped fresh in salads, or steamed as "greens". The older leaves can be chopped in soups, stir-fried, or added to omelets.
4. Mizuna (Kyona)
Mizuna is another type of Chinese mustard that deserves a special mention, if only for its attractive foliage. Leaves are light-green and fringed, and similar in appearance to the feathery flowering kales. This plant is very easy to grow, and can also be used as a cut-and-come-again crop in spring or fall.
Like other mustards, Mizuna grows quickly, with the greens ready for harvest 40 days after planting. It has a mild mustard flavour and makes a pretty addition to a salad, or just stir fried as a "green". Thin plants to stand 10" - 12" apart, and provide plenty of water during the growing season. Some of the newer varieties available are quite heat tolerant.