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Vegetable Choices and Concepts

by Irving Beilin Chang

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Spring Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(1) page(s): 17 and 18

Concept one, Chinese people seldom diet; perhaps because their daily meals contain plenty of vegetables. By bulking up with low caloric healthy food, few people put on excess weight. Another concept that the Chinese have is that the line between herbal medicine and edible vegetable are blurred and, therefore, not clearly defined. For instance, bitter melon is used mainly as a vegetable; it is very bitter and many people consider eating it equivalent to taking bitter medicine. That is why when cooked, it is often blanch it in hot water first. That removes some of the bitterness.

However, for the true die-hard herbalist, bitter melon should not be blanched because the bitter extract is good medicine that cools the body of its 'fire.' Too much 'fire' in ones system generally means an imbalance of the system and therefore, one can get sick. Winter melon is another example of a vegetable first and herb second. Its bland meat not only gives soups and dishes their mellow and smooth flavor, but it also reduces the 'fire' in the one who imbibes it.

Another concept the Chinese have is that vegetables must be fresh and picked at the peak of flavor. They are willing to pay high prices for any vegetable of exceptional flavor and quality. For instance, fresh snow peas can be priced at the level of steak and snow pea shoots at twice that price. Another example, is bleached chives; bleached because Chinese farmers cover the chives with straw. Deprived of sun light, they do not turn green and do not develop a strong onion flavor. Instead, they are tender and sweet, golden in color, and with just a hint of onion taste. When grown in this manner, the yield of the crop is greatly reduced making bleached chives at least twice the price of green ones. This delicate vegetable is often paired with filet mignon to make a mouth-watering combination.

The plenty or wide variety of vegetables gives chefs more choices for fancy combinations. In the cabbage family (bai tsai), there is western cabbage (juan xing tsai), celery cabbage (tientsin bai tsai), Shanghai cabbage (ching gong tsai), Cantonese cabbage (bok tsoi), Cantonese cabbage hearts (bok tsoi sum), and Nappa cabbage (siow tsoi). Other leafy vegetables are Chinese mustard green (gai tsoi), Chinese broccoli (gai lan), red-in-snow (shie li hung), hollow stem vegetable (tung xing tsai), and spinach (bo tsai). Incidentally, the leaves of this spinach are smaller than those of Western spinach and, the root nodules have a reddish tint. Chinese love to eat those root nodules, they are sweet and sightly crunchy.

In the case of beans and peas, there is dried soy bean (huang do), green soy bean (mao do), soy bean sprouts (hang do ya), long beans (gong do), snow peas (shieh do), great or horse beans (tsan do), black eyed peas (mei do), string beans (sih gee do), mung beans (lo do), and mung bean sprouts (lo do ya), to name but a few.

These days, items such as mung bean sprouts can be found in most large supermarkets. They are very popular at home or used in restaurant recipes. The cost is reasonable, they are easy to cook, and their vitamin A and B levels are high. Whoever thought of transforming mung beans into such a delightful light, nutritious, and tasty vegetable had a stroke of genius. That one vegetable and some others give Northern Chinese a healthy diet even during the wintertime and they make a delightful change from winter-hardy vegetables such as cabbage, turnips, carrots, and leeks.

Among the melons, the Chinese delight in eating winter melon (dung gwa) and watermelon (shi gwa). Did you know that watermelon is called Western melon and honeydew melon Wallace melon? Henry Wallace went to China and gave some farmers honeydew melon seeds so they named the melon after him and call it hami gwa. This particular melon is very sweet and juicy as are most honeydew melons. The meat in the hami gwa is reddish and grown in Hami, an oasis in the Xing Jiang province of China. There are also many variations of the musk melon, some with yellow stripes; these are called golden melon (hang jing gwa).

In swampy land, farmers grow water chestnuts. This is really a reed grown under an inch or so of water. The root is reddish-brown, about one and one-quarter inches in diameter, round, and about three-quarters of an inch thick. When peeled, the inside meat is very white, sweet tasting, and quite crunchy. The fresh ones can be used raw in salads and can be cooked combined with a myriad of foods, enhancing them.

Most Americans only know the canned water chestnut. A pity, for fresh, they are truly fantastic. Americans also do not realize that the starch of the water chestnut is an effective thickener. It is very white and similar to cornstarch but has a much finer taste. Try some in your next Chinese recipe.

There are many vegetables in China that are now available in the United States. Some are not yet popular, but that is rapidly changing. Some have been brought by tourists, others by immigrants. The Chinese assess a high degree of curiosity so when they find or make something new, they find ways to grow it, use it in other ways, and enjoy it. It is in this manner eating such a wide variety of them that they stay healthy, eat a varied diet, stay thin, and enjoy life to the fullest.

Below are two recipes that use lesser known vegetables.
Filet Mignon with Bleached Chives
1/2 pound filet mignon
3 slices ginger root, minced
1 Tablespoon light soy sauce
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
10 ounces bleached chives, cut into 2-inch segments
1. Cut filet mignon into one-quarter-inch thick slices.
2. Marinate the meat with ginger root, soy and oyster sauces, sugar, and cornstarch for half an hour.
3. Heat oil and fry bleached chives for a few seconds.
4. Add marinated meat mixture and fry for two minutes; meat should be pink inside but cooked on the outside.
Serve hot
Stir-fried Chinese Mustard Greens
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
6 large cloves garlic, minced
6 slices fresh ginger, minced
1 pound mustard greens, cut in bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon sugar
1. Heat oil in non-stick pan or wok and add garlic and ginger and fry a few seconds.
2. Add mustard greens and continue to fry half a minute then add stock, salt and sugar. Cook on high heat about four or five minutes until the liquid is almost evaporated.
Note: This recipe can be served hot or cold.

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