Thursday, February 16, 2012

Asian Greens

I love Asian greens - and they taste best when picked fresh from the garden, of course!

Mustard greens, Bok choi, and Tah tsai
Asian greens are quite easy to grow from seed. Just plant in early spring (for a spring-summer crop) or late summer (for a fall crop), when the weather is cool. They do not generally appreciate hot weather. In my climate, floating row cover is essential to protect plants from flea beetles, which will otherwise chew thousands of tiny holes in the plants, and possibly even kill them. The row cover is light- and water-permeable, and is placed directly over the plants like a blanket. Anchor the edges with logs, stones, or earth. If you take good care of it (which I do not!) it will last several seasons. (I once tried to wash an old, soiled row cover in the washing machine and I can tell you that this does not work! The row cover gets strip-like tears and is ruined.) Here are some of my personal favorite Asian greens:

Baby Bok choi 'Shuko'
Baby bok choi (bok choy, pac choi) is delicious and easy to grow. This is not just an immature form of the regular, stringy, tall bok choi with thick white stems. Baby bok choi is a different vegetable. It has green stems and grows to only about 4-6 inches tall at maturity. All parts are sweet and tender. You can either pick the entire plant when mature (the prettiest option), or continuously harvest the outer leaves until it bolts (the most abundant option). Either way it is delicious added to a stir fry or soup. For me bok choi has just the right balance of spicy brassica flavor and sweetness. I have grown a variety of cultivars including 'Feng Qing', 'Mei Qing', 'Shuko', 'Brisk Green', and 'Ching Chang' and have found them to be very similar.

Mustard 'Pink Pop'
Mustard greens are of course a spicier vegetable, and the spiciness can really vary by cultivar and growing conditions. I mostly grow mustard greens for harvesting at the "baby" stages and for adding to salads. Here are two cultivars I've enjoyed: 'Pink Pop' has light green serrated leaves with pretty ruby pink veins. It's a bit course-textured and hairy when mature, but when young it is tender and not too spicy.

Mustard 'Ruby Streaks'
'Ruby Streaks' mustard has very finely dissected leaves and makes a pretty reddish-purple addition to a salad. The flavor is very mild if picked when young.

Tah Tsai
Tah Tsai (Tatsoi) is one of my favorite Asian vegetables of all. This is not a very good picture - it is actually much cuter than this. The color is an extremely dark green, and the shape is flat and round, like a rosette. It has a serious, lurking sort of look to it, as if it is clinging to the earth. I have the feeling it is afraid it will fall upwards. In my climate I can harvest the outer leaves from a plant continuously from spring through fall some years (if it gets too hot the plant will bolt, however). The flavor is excellent - a wonderful deep "green" flavor which is brassica-like, but not too spicy for me. Tah tsai is also tremendously cold-hardy. It can be overwintered in an unheated greenhouse in my climate, just like spinach. (The plants will freeze temporarily when temps dip well below freezing, but will start growing again once it warms up.)

Chinese cabbage 'Blues'
Chinese cabbage (or Napa cabbage) is of course a well-known Asian vegetable. In my climate it does not grow very well, because it needs a long, cool spring (or fall) in order for the heads to form. Our spring and fall here are just too short for this to happen reliably. I tried a variety of cultivars and the most successful for me was 'Blues'. 'Blues' is a hybrid that is rather small, and heads up relatively quickly. It also resists bolting in warmer weather somewhat. Still, only some of the plants would form heads before the onset of high summer. You may have better luck with chinese cabbage if you are have a longer spring than me. It is wonderfully fresh and crisp when eaten straight from the garden and well worth a try.

Amaranth may not come to mind when you think of Asian vegetables, but Amaranth leaves are eaten by many people throughout south and east Asia. The flavor is excellent - warm and nutty. Unlike the other Asian greens, it is not a brassica and has a very different flavor. The best thing about Amaranth is that it is a tropical plant which grows well in the heat of summer. Seed should be sown only when temperatures are warm. It is not troubled by flea beetles. It grows quickly and gets very large (several feet tall and wide). Harvest by pinching off the branch ends, containing the smallest, tenderest leaves and shoots (like harvesting basil). New branching shoots will form. The larger, older leaves are tough and not the best for eating. If you let it, the plant will flower and is quite ornamental.

Chinese cabbage 'Fun Jen
'Fun Jen' is a hybrid Chinese cabbage that does not look like Chinese cabbage at all. It is leafy and does not form a head. The color is a very pleasing bright spring green, and the the leaves are very soft-textured and wavy. I did not have much luck with it because the soft, juicy texture of the leaves proved to be an absolute slug-magnet under my row cover. It got eaten to strips, as you can see here. Also, it bolted very quickly (as shown in the picture). The flavor, for me, was too bland. I personally prefer a brassier brassica. But it is something different to try - if you can stop the slugs.

Kai Lan
Kai lan (Gai lan) is the best-tasting Asian vegetable I have ever eaten. It is reminiscent of very good broccoli, and perhaps somewhat of arugula, but it has a wonderful sweet nuttiness all its own. You eat the stems (peeled, if mature) and the baby flower florets, like broccoli. Sadly, it does not grow well for me. It also needs a long spring for the stems to mature and get thick (the ones in the photo above are laughably tiny if you've seen good examples of Kai lan!). For me they begin to bolt (as above) when the stems are still very thin, and though tasty, there is just not much vegetable to pick. This is one of the few cases where I can purchase better vegetables than I can grow. You should give it a try if you have a long spring, or do like me and visit your local Asian grocery if not!


  1. I grow napa cabbage and mustard greens, but I have not tried some of these other Asian veggies, such as bok choi. You have inspired me to try...thanks!

    1. Happy green growing, Michelle! Baby bok choi is very quick and easy - I bet you'll like it.

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