Well, there's help on the way. I picked up an illuminating book recently that is both a recipe and a handbook to those mysterious greens. It's called A Cook's Guide to Asian Vegetables by Wendy Hutton (2004 Periplus Editions of Singapore).

vegetables


The book is well laid-out with exquisite illustrations and easy recipes for veggies.

It's divided into 11 sections:

– Beans, Peas & Pulses
– Cabbages & Other Leafy Greens
– Fruiting Vegetables
– Gourds & Melons
– Herbs
– Mushrooms & Other Fungi
– The Onion Family
– Preserved Vegetables
– Seaweeds
– Tofu & Other Soy Products
– Tubers, Stems & Roots.

For those wandering into Asian stores here in Toronto, Cooking Resource's scribe Mary Luz Meija takes a tour of the city's Chinatown.

EASY-TO-USE

Each chapter begins with a listing of the vegetables and ends with about 10 recipes using the previously-mentioned veggies. The explanations include things such as "appearance & flavour," preparation, nutritional properties and of course, its culinary uses.

Take the "Cabbage" section for instance. It starts with Amaranth or Chinese Spinach, which is described as leafy green and tasting similar to English spinach though not as sweet but with a more intense flavour. There are 50 different species varying in colour from purplish red to red. It says to "pluck off the tender tips and leaves, and discard the hard portion of the central stems." In Asia, the amaranth is stir-fried, added to soups or blanched and used in salads.

The vegetable listing ends with Water Spinach or Kangkung, which I have known as a jungle vegetable. It's also been called water convolvulus and morning glory and has a nice deep green colour with hollow stems. Known in Cantonese as ong choy and in Malaysia and Indonesia as kangkung.

The book recommends buying the veggie when its leaves are still green and without any signs of yellowing. Do not trim and wrap in a damp newspaper, refrigerate for only one to two days. Kangkung is rich in iron and vitamin A and in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, the young shoots are eaten raw with dipping sauce. In other places, it is stir fried with dried shrimp paste and chili. It can also be added to stews using coconut milk.

asian market


Flipping through the book, I discovered a world of vegetables that were fascinating in description and look:

Purslane is depicted as having "fat, succulent stems" with a sweet n' sour taste.

Banana Flower is the unopened male flower of the banana looking like a bizarre reddish version of an artichoke (you eat its white heart).

Polygonum or Laksa Leaf has a distinctive peppery flavour used in noodle soups and spring rolls and of course, the famous laksa noodle soup of Malaysia and Singapore.

Torch Ginger, an edible flower bud resembling a torch, of course, and commonly used as an herb in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.

Sesbania is a versatile plant with edible leaves, pods and flowers. The leaves and pods are boiled in stews or curries and the flowers eaten raw, blanched or deep-fried.

The introduction has some great advice recommending that olive oil never be used in the cooking of Asian vegetables, as it tends to alter the flavour. Instead canola, sunflower or corn oil and other light vegetable oils are preferred.