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Veggie Buds are Mustard Greens
Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods
Winter Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(4) page(s): 25 - 29, and 34
Twice in one week a query about ‘veggie buds’ comes to our desk and leaves us intrigued. One person leaves an incorrect telephone, another an e-mail response that bounces. Clearly we need to learn about these vegetables on our own, so we begin by asking Michael Gray. He tells us they are in the mustard green family, and suggests we go together to a Sichuan restaurant in Queens to taste them. That we do.
Another friend says to go to a Chinese supermarket. There, we are unsuccessful as they only have the gnarled fresh mustard greens, and no other advice. We show them the words in Chinese and they direct us to bean sprouts. A different chap tells us the Chinese characters for both food items are very similar. Then we go to Stony Brook's extensive Chinese cookbook collection, the one that was once ours, no luck there. Not a single recipe in any cookbook is for veggie buds.
We meet Michael at the Queens Sichuan eatery he recommended. Before we do, we learn very little other than in Chinese and English they have many different names. The only place with results is on Google. They show them in a foil and plastic multi-layer sealed packet, but in English they do not detail what is in them. Fresh mustard greens can be seen on this page. We learn this vegetable is popular in different parts of China, and that it has different names in different places.
We know mustard greens are healthy and related to cabbage, kale, and collard greens. We also know they are more pungent than most other greens, gnarled or not. Many but not all have thick leaves, taste peppery, and when stir-fried can taste milder than when they are raw.
We learn this family of greens includes more than a hundred different species, all said to lower cholesterol by binding bile acids as do cruciferous vegetables. One web site says this vegetable has cancer-preventing properties because of two glucosinolates called sinigrin and gluconasturtiian; they convert to allyl-thiocyanate and phenethyl-isothiocyanate and are better known by their initials, namely, AITC and PEITC, respectively. We know these dark green vegetables have lots of vitamin A and K, some pectin, potassium and phosphorus, quite a few amino acids, and some soluble sugars. In addition, we know they provide umami tastes, are in the Brassica family, and have edible seeds, stems, and leaves with the seeds used to make mustard oils and spreadable mustards.
Traditional Chinese doctors, TCM practitioners, tell us their nature is warm and their flavor pungent. They say they tonify intestines, clear lung congestion, improve qi and circulation, reduce mucus from colds, and are valuable for reducing lung infections. One TCM chap tells us to shred the fresh greens and make mustard green tea when needed, and to drink some hot some tepid, each several times a day.
Besides drinking mustard green tea and eating mustard greens raw, steamed, fried, pickled, and in other ways, the Chinese use the entire mustard green plant as green manure and to remove heavy metals such as lead and cadmium from contaminated soil. When so doing, they know to dispose of this soil properly, and in addition, they use overgrown mustard plants to suppress weeds. Some sources call mustard greens 'dried lettuce' but we doubt this is correct; it sounds like a confusion with celtuce, a different green vegetable. That one will be discussed in the next issue.
As to veggie buds, there are two names and two species of this food among the hundred or so different mustard green varieties that exist. All agree that one hundred grams of this vegetable raw which is three and a half ounces, has twenty-six calories, four and a half grams of carbohydrate, two and a half grams of protein, two grams of dietary fiber, and one and a half grams of sugar.
'Veggie buds' are in the genus Brassica, their species juncea, and they and all mustard greens have many different names in Chinese and English. Many folk do confuse one with another, and we hope to clear up some confusion as we explore the two items called 'veggie buds' which in Chinese are popularly known as gong cai or ya cai. The latter name seems restricted to preserved ones. Some folk tell us that all mustard greens are in the Lactuca, Aster or Asterales, Magnolia, Magnoliophyla, or Liopsida families and can be called 'dried lettuce.' Experts in the field consider this a mistake and tell us a lettuce they are not.
As we continue to explore veggie buds, we hear a story about this vegetable circa 218 BCE when a chap called Zhang Liang tried to assassinate the first Emperor of Qin but failed and then quickly fled to Pizhou. There he eats veggie buds, and thanks to them he gains more energy. Soon thereafter, he becomes a strong military counselor in the West Han Dynasty and remembers the wonderful taste of these mustard greens, so he asks his servants to get some to present to Emperor Gaozu. They do, he presents them, and the emperor is most appreciative.
This is one way these greens became famous. The emperor and others in his court call them a 'speciality of Pizhou.' They use them lots and like them lots in dishes served at the court. Are they using one or both kinds in Pizhou? They call them gong cai and/or ya cai and we believe most often they mean the preserved ones. Details of both follow, so read on.
GONG CAI is the name of one mustard green. Others include xiang cai, taigan, shanzhe, ma cai, dat tou cai, zha cai, qing cai, and tongue do. In English some of this vegetable’s names are Tribute vegetable, Emperors vegetable, mountain bite, loud or noisy vegetable, Pizhou vegetable, leaf mustard, Swatow mustard, Indian mustard, red in snow, and mountain jelly vegetable. The names of mountain bite, noisy, and loud vegetable, and Pizhou vegetable all refer to the preserved variety.
Fresh mustard greens are better known in China than processed or preserved ones, and the most popular preserved mustard greens are ya cai and made in the Sichuan Province. The best packaged variety is suimiyacai made in Yibin. One can find several different ones in different supermarkets in Queens, all popular, all imported. Do see the front and back of their package illustrated on this page.
Different fresh varieties grow in different places including the provinces of Anhui, Sichuan, and Zhejiang, and of course in the city of Pizhou. Home cooks and professionals find many uses for them. More mustard greens grow in China than anywhere else in the world, though they and their close relatives can also be found in Africa, Italy, India, Japan, Korea, and Russia.
Those given to the Emperor by Zhang came from Pizhou. Many did call them a tribute vegetable, but they did not formally get this name until the mid-Qing Dynasty. Thought cold and crisp, folks before and since believe they taste and sound as though eating jellyfish, and that is why they are named 'noisy.'
Incidentally, with Michael at Sister Zhou's restaurant on Prince Street in Flushing, we do get to see and taste these vegetables, even hear them when we eat them. The chef brings some up from her basement kitchen to show and share. Hers are dried before packing. We wonder how and why they come in less than quarter-inch wide strips that are twelve or more inches long.
Later, when reading more about them, we learn different brands cut them in different widths and lengths and dry them with salt or sugar and in the sun. Note the picture of some hanging on ropes with this article. Sister Zhou says hers come from China's Anhui Province and she can not purchase them in the United States. But, half an hour later when wandering in a Chinese supermarket on Flushing's Main Street looking for something else, we do spot a package of them. it says in English and Chinese: 'preserved vegetable.' Lots later, we read they are always cut into very thin strips, then boiled in super-saturated salt- or sugar-water, and hung in the sun to dry. The ones we buy that day say they are from Shanghai.
The Chinese like to cook these vegetables fresh, or reconstituted if purchased dry. Note then both ways, one under the other. When cooking hers, this chef prepares them with lots of garlic, onions, and mushrooms. Others add pieces of day lilies and/or cloud ear fungi and quite a few seasonings. People like them hot, warm, or cold, savory or sweet, and tossed with sesame oil.
Some Chinese snack on veggie buds right out of the foil package, others eat them dried or pickled, and still others prefer them on rice. One TCM practitioner told us that all mustard greens are good for preserving health and increasing qi, and that we should eat them often.
YA CAI are more commonly called ‘veggie buds.' They can be found on menus in some Sichuan restaurants including the one called 'Hly' in Flushing. As already indicated, the best are from the Sichuan Province. There, they were first recorded in the 19th century. The primary ingredient is the mustard green called jie mop cia. Ya cai are most often boiled with brown sugar for eight or nine hours, their leaves already cut away and fed to local poultry or other animals.
After drying them, the stems are chopped, salted and fermented, then dried again and mixed with star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger root, and other seasonings. Most companies pack them in small one hundred gram foil and plastic packets. The very first to preserve them was a chap in Yibin, a town about one hundred fifty miles from Chengdu. You can find that town on almost every map.
Called za cai which some incorrectly spell as zha cai, they were first made in Pizhou more than a thousand years ago. Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty later officially called them a 'tribute vegetable.' In the 1960s, Premier Zhou Enlai spoke about them in a 'ring dish' and a 'mountain sting' dish. Chinese friends say some of the names are probably because of the sound similar to that of eating jellyfish. This preserved Pizhou tribute dish earned a gold medal at the Second National Agricultural Fair in 1998.
Used in many ways, ya cai is most popular when mixed with pork and stuffed in a baozi or dumpling or when used in a dish called 'burning noodles' which, in Chinese, is called ran mian. Veggie buds can be and are cooked in other ways, often with fish or string beans.
Where can you eat these dishes? They are on a few menus in Sichuan restaurants including at Sister Zhou's place called PRINCE NOODLE HOUSE; 37-17 Prince Street; Flushing NY 11354; phone: (718) 996-5595. When there, do ask for them as Michael and I did; we enjoyed them very much.
Hly CHINESE CUISINE; 43-23 Main Street; FLUSHING NY 11355; phone: (718) 353-1879 is another place to find them and other veggie buds and mustard greens. This restaurant has an extensive menu, most dishes shown in color on it including their veggie buds made with string beans. We hope to review these restaurants in an upcoming issue.
Keep in mind that when asking for ya cai in Chinese supermarkets, one might be directed to bean sprouts, so do take the picture of the most popular brand in its foil and plastic package.
In Hly, the owner did sell us a single packet for four dollars. Better to buy yours at the Gold City Supermarket on Kissena Boulevard in Flushing where they cost less than a buck; sixty-eight cents to be exact. On one website, fifteen packets cost four dollars with shipping extra.
One packet is often too much. We recommend storing any leftovers in the small packet taped shut or tied with a twist-em after squeezing out as much air as possible. Do refrigerate these leftovers, and after so doing, they can stay for one or two weeks.
There is much information and misinformation about these and other mustard greens be they fresh or fermented. After reading this article, if you know other information, please do share it. We will compile facts and fallacies and print them in a future issue; until then, enjoy the recipes below.
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