Plant an assortment of Asian vegetables in the family garden or in any suitable pot and you'll be able to stir up an inexpensive batch of fresh, flavorful food easier than you can say "Chinese takeout."
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," said Geri Harrington 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 that 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.
Bok choy is a cool weather vegetable that matures quickly — about two months — although you don’t have to wait that long to eat it. You can start peeling its outer leaves while the heart continues to grow. Bok choy has been described as two vegetables in one: the leaves cook up like spinach while the ribs are similar to asparagus. It has a mild taste and often is used in recipes to tone down stronger flavors.
"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," he said.
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."
Here are several reasons why growing your own Chinese vegetables is worth digging deeper into the pages of seed catalogs or shopping at Oriental markets:
Asian vegetables are surprisingly tough plants and can be grown in most North American climates, said Karen Russ, a horticulture specialist with The Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service. Many spring varieties can be iffy, though, if exposed to temperatures of less than 50 degrees for any length of time, she said.
"They'll bolt (form unwanted flower stalks), making their flavor decline, their leaves toughen and their taste hotter - some, like the giant mustards, obnoxiously so," Russ said.
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, she said.
"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.
For more about growing Asian vegetables, try this Clemson University Extension Service site: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/vegetables/crops/hg c13 06.html