Putting the Pan in Pan-Asian: Leafy Greens

10 Aug

New theme! Putting the Pan in Pan-Asian! Get it? Har har, I’m so funny. This first installment is also known as “The Old Wives’ (太太) Tale Edition.”

When I moved back to the U.S. for high school, I had a really hard time getting adjusted to the veggies available in the dining hall. On the steam table, there were always perfectly cut carrots with murky peas or mushy zucchini with undercooked summer squash. Blech. The salad bar was a little better with fresh romaine, broccoli, cucumbers, shredded cheese, bacon bits, and seven types of goopey dressing. Mmmm, Aramark.

It would be a looooong time before I learned about kale, collard and mustard greens, and even longer until I met Elizabeth Telling’s braising greens. But what I longed for were simply sauteed/stir-fried spinach (菠菜), water spinach (空心菜), amaranth (苋菜), Chinese broccoli (芥蓝),  napa cabbage (白菜), Chinese celery (芹菜), bok choy (调羹菜), and on and on and on. I still have these longings and luckily there are a good number of Chinese groceries that I can now drive to. (!!!) It doesn’t make up for the fact that these greens are a PITA to trim and wash.

The pic up top is water spinach. In Chinese, it’s transliterated as empty heart vegetable. (Kangkong/kangkung in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.)  You can see why, the stalks are totally hollow, except at the joint with a leaf. Amongst more conscientious eaters in East and Southeast Asia, it’s rare that this leafy veggie is ordered outside of the home. Water spinach is particularly difficult to wash because it’s grown in mud and/or marshes. The hollow stalks are said to harbor lots of critters that make their home in swamp land, most prominently leeches and worms. There are a bunch of urban legends floating around about how someone ate unclean water spinach at a hawker stall and perished from leech breeding in the belly. Yeaaah.

For this batch, I spent quite a bit of time trimming and washing. First, I soaked the veggies overnight in water. In the morning, I trimmed: snapped off and discarded the toughest part of the stem, then for each leaf, I pinched off a stem segment about half an inch above and below the leaf joint. Lastly, I washed and rinsed twice, just to make sure I got all the mud and dirt out. Finally, my favorite style: sauteed with tofu roo (sauteed with belacan, fermented shrimp paste, also very good).  Let’s just say that cooked Chinese leafy greens aren’t exactly the easiest to photograph.

These greens above are amaranth. They are my father’s favorite greens in the whole world. It’s got the tannic quality like spinach but has a more vegetal flavor. Do you see those violet veins? Once amaranth is sauteed/stir-fried, it exudes this gorgeous magenta cooking liquid. Not sure if this is superstition or old wives’ tale, but it is said that this veggie is good for promoting blood flow and recouping lost blood (monthly bleeders, take note). I washed and rinsed these about three times to get the dirt off and sauteed them simply in garlic. I had almost no cooking liquid so no pics, but if you’re interested in a recipe and more pics of amaranth, Serious Eats recently featured them in their Seriously Asian segment.


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