Add a taste of Asia to the garden

Do your taste buds yearn for flavors beyond that of the usual vegetable garden suspects? Looking for something tasty and easy to grow in the cool season fall or spring gardens?

There are some new arrivals emigrating to local gardens from traditional world cuisines. Some of the hottest new additions to the vegetable garden lineup are greens from traditional Asian cultures.

As people look to incorporate more interesting flavors into their cuisine, Asian greens have become a go-to addition to recipes and gardens alike. You see them much more regularly on restaurant menus and in garden catalogs than ever before. They help extend the greens’ palate far beyond the traditional lettuce, spinach and kale.

Lewis Jett, the WVU Extension Commercial Horticulture specialist has become a big fan of Asian greens, working with farmers around the state to try them and recommend them to other farmers. It turns out that they are not just popular in areas where there are large Asian populations to consume them — everyone is getting in on the act.

And there’s lots to love. Aside from the many interesting flavors that the greens have to offer, they can be relatively easy to grow. You can sow them from seed in the garden in early spring or in late summer for a fall crop.

Most of the greens grow relatively quickly and can be harvested at multiple stages — from baby size to full maturity. Planting for the fall means you can cover them with row cover and keep them green through most of the winter to keep you from suffering from the doldrums.

Many of the greens have a spicy, strong flavor that goes well in Asian cooking, but they can also be used for more common dishes such as salads or even the traditional Appalachian cooked greens (with pork fat, of course). But there’s a wide selection of these greens with flavors to suit every palate.

Most people may know about the common Asian greens bok choy or pak choi, but there are a wide variety of greens that are hitting the garden catalogs and restaurant menus.

Here’s a sampling of some of the things you may want to consider adding to your garden. Like many of the cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale) that are all variations of the same plant species, many of the Asian greens are varieties of the same species Brassica rapa that developed from the same plant in different areas of Asia. The most common member of the Brassica rapa group to Americans is the lowly, yet tasty, turnip.

Starting with the most recognizable green, bok choy or pak choi can be commonly found in the grocery produce section and the garden catalog. It is commonly used in stir fry dishes, but can be used in a variety of ways.

It is a non-heading cabbage that has both tender leaves and crunchy stems. It is trendy to harvest as a baby vegetable and serve either whole or sliced.

Tatsoi is another green you might encounter on the garden rack or catalog. It forms a loose rosette of leaves and is sometimes called spoon cabbage, because the leaves curve backwards to form “spoons.”

It has a mild, sweet cabbage flavor that is good for salads or soups. It is fairly cold-tolerant and will survive in temperatures down to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Napa cabbage is also a common fixture in the grocery store produce section. This is the cabbage that you are most likely to find used in dishes from the local Chinese restaurant. It forms a loosely packed, pointy cabbage head that can be finely shredded for salads or stir-fry. It is also usually the base for preparations such as egg rolls.

Mizuna is a more pungent, spicy member of the group. It has a bite similar to that of arugula. It might be sold as Japanese mustard, as the flavor and the plant resemble that of mustard greens commonly planted in the garden.

Komatsuna is a variety that Jett has indicated does well on West Virginia farms, and he has encouraged farmers to grow it. It has wide, large leaves reaching up to 12 inches in length when mature, but it can be harvested and used at a much smaller size. Young leaves start with a milder flavor, which grows in heat and intensity as the leaves get closer to maturity.

One common Asian garden plant that isn’t in the Brassica rapa group (it is even in a different family — the mint family) is called shiso. It is a plant that is sometimes called perilla and sold as an ornamental. It is often used as an Asian garnish or used as a spice to flavor Asian dishes.

There are many more Asian greens out there, and garden catalogs are filling up with different varieties to try. I suggest giving some a try to add flavor and texture to your vegetable garden, especially in the fall and winter months. Who knows, you may find a new favorite vegetable.

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