JP’s Food Adventures: Chinatown Veggies

Brown beech mushrooms, king oyster mushroom, daikon radish, bitter melon, eggplants and snap peas. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Chinese produce vendors dot our neighborhood, in the form of greengrocers, outdoor stands or pushcarts. You can spot those with the most attractive prices by the brisk business they do. Many vegetables that would be difficult to locate in places without a decent Asian population can easily be found here on the LES.

As someone who often cooks Chinese, Japanese and South Asian dishes at home, I find this bounty exciting. Some of us look at these vegetables and wonder, “What do you do with that?” Before you can begin to answer that question you have to know what you’re looking at. This isn’t always easy for non-Chinese speakers, as so much retail vegetable business is conducted in Cantonese, Mandarin or other regional dialects.

But if you know the English name of the vegetable,  you’re just a few clicks away from finding out how to turn it into something delicious. The search function in your browser bar is, among other things, an index to a huge cookbook. And cooking is what one does with these vegetables; raw veggies are rarely served in Chinese cooking (though they are carved into elaborate garnishes).

This week I’m going to look at some of the veggies available at a typical Chinese greengrocer, identify them and suggest how to cook them. Most are available year-round, but some are more seasonal, being hard to find (and at a higher price) out of season.

Let’s start with roots: garlic, ginger (actually a rhizome) and sweet potatoes are all familiar. Try sweet potato in a coconut milk Thai curry sometime. The large white (sometimes green) radishes might be more of a stretch for some; the Japanese call them daikon. Peeled and cut into little cubes, they’re great cooked in miso soup. They’re good for pickling (pickled daikon and carrot are essential for a Vietnamese sandwich). Grated, they’re very good on Japanese style salads. Another vegetable that turns up grated on salads is jicama, which looks like a giant turnip with a dry, potato-like peel. I like it Thai style: cubed and stir fried with pork, seasoned with fish sauce and spiced with an inordinate quantity of ground black pepper.

Moving on to seeded vegetables, there’s the long Asian eggplants. They’re less bitter and thinner-skinned than their American counterparts, working well in Thai curries, stir-fried in spicy Chinese brown sauce or with a Japanese miso glaze. Another popular vegetable (less popular among Westerners) is bitter melon. It is a gourd, and it is bitter, having an astringent, almost medicinal taste. When stir-fried with black bean sauce, it makes a great foil for fatty meat, especially pork. It is also used in soups (the seeds and pulp around them are not eaten).

Many medicinal claims are made about this vegetable, which is a source of Quinine, so it’s probably at least somewhat anti-malarial. Another “melon” you’ll find is winter melon, used to make a classic Chinese soup. The last seeded vegetable I’ll cover today is long beans. They are foot long green beans that make a good substitute for French haricots verts. They’re also great stir-fried with your fave protein in Chinese brown (or oyster) sauce.

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

There are plenty of leafy veggies available at a Chinese greengrocer. Most of us already know napa (Chinese cabbage) and bok choy. These, and other cabbage-like vegetables end up in soups, braised, pickled or stir-fried. Right now you can find snow pea leaves and water spinach (a hollow, reed-like vegetable with abundant green leaves). Both of these prized greens benefit from a quick saute in oil, garlic, and salt – perfect to round out a simple meal of protein and rice.

I can‘t go on about the bounty of Chinese greengrocers without mentioning mushrooms. Time was when most Asian mushrooms were only found dried or canned. Today a number of fresh mushrooms can be found for sale. The Chinese shitakes are lighter colored versions of their Japanese counterparts, with fatter caps. Generally the cap is the part that’s eaten. They’re very good in soups, especially noodle soups, as they add a powerful mushroom flavor to the broth. Scoring the caps in a crisscross pattern adds to their visual appeal when cooked.

Fresh enoki mushrooms can be found as well, so delicate they must be added to a dish at the end of cooking, lest they disintegrate. A more substantial fungus is the king oyster mushroom – it’s practically all stem. This mushroom takes well to being cut in coin sized rounds and seared in a hot pan with a little oil. My current favorites are brown beech mushrooms (white are also available), sold in 3.5 oz cellophane packs for about $2. Toss these guys into a hot wok with oil and garlic, and when they’re cooked, throw in a handful of snow peas and a drizzle of oyster sauce – there’s a simple, elegant and delicious vegetable dish.

From supermarkets to pushcarts there’s so much good Asian produce available for the neighborhood home cook to explore. When pressed for time, I manage to find most of what I need on Grand Street between Eldridge and Bowery. Plenty of choices there, and you can do very well if you’re not afraid to comparison shop. I know I’m not the only one comparison shopping for veggies on Grand Street. Plenty of us are going from shop to shop carrying red bags.

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.

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I’ve always liked Portuguese wines, and good ones are getting easier to find. Monte Velho 2009 red wine is a great example. It’s a big wine, yet not a fruit bomb – spice plays off the fruit nicely, and it’s balanced in spite of clocking in at 14% alcohol. And at $12 (Seward Park Liquors) for a lusty, change of pace red it’s well worth a try. This wine is surprising.

  • JP Bowersock

    Jill,

    Like much of our produce (unless you only shop at the Greenmarkets) it comes from all over. Much of the garlic available is from China. Many of the boxes other vegetables are shipped in seem to indicate a California origin, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise. The packaging on the brown beech mushrooms says the company is based in Cali. The first king oyster mushrooms I came across were from Ontario, but now that they’re more popular I would think there’s a US source.

    I like the idea of local eating, but I’m even more keen on adventurous eating. If I tried going completely local my diet would start to get bleak this time of year, and downright grim come winter!

  • Jill W.

    Don’t worry I wasn’t trying to start a conversation about eating local. I was more curious if fresh produce was coming from as far away as China. Garlic I could see, leafy greens less so. Cali makes sense.

  • Nathan Metz

    Good work, JP! As I’m sure you know, I have shopped in Chinese markets for decades. Your info is right on! I shop on 8th Ave. in Brooklyn these days, and I have found some great items. I also had a wonderful appetizer in one of the 8th Ave. joints a few years ago. Rings of bitter melon stuffed with a classic pork dumpling mixture, and steamed with salted black beans, scallions and ginger was a brilliant combination. The place that served it is long gone, but you might want to try making it, as I have. I have a lot to add to your compendium of food lore!

  • JP Bowersock

    Nathan! I make it out to Bklyn’s Chinatown in Sunset pretty often, although it’s always a tough choice between Chinese and Mexican when dining out in that area. I’ve had a riff on the appetizer you describe, but it was deep fried. Delicious, but heavy. The combination of ground pork, bitter melon and fermented black beans is a stunner, but it’s not for everyone. Some folks just don’t dig that vegetable. Their loss. Stir fried pork and bitter melon was one of the first things I learned to cook (decades ago), and it remains a favorite. When I do a Chinese throw-down for family and friends it’s usually the first dish to get polished off.

  • Julie

    Love your article JP! Keep up the great writing.