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Mustard Greens: Plain and Perky

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Spring Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(1) pages: 23 to 24

These vegetables can be and are confused by folks, Chinese and others. They go by a variety of names, and most are related to and in the bok cai family such as gong cai, taigan, shanzhe, ya cai, tong do,. and others. In English, the more popular ones are known as Tribute vegetables, Emperor vegetables, mountain jelly, noisy bite, noisy vegetable, etc. Some folks told us they are not available in the US, but we did find them fresh, canned, dried, and frozen in Asian markets. They are in the Brassica family, related to kale, cabbage, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts, and are very nutritious with lots of anti-oxidants and Vitamins A, C, and K, and plenty of folic acid.

In China, they are the most common vegetables grown in the Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces, probably in other places, too. Furthermore, their seeds are available in Chinese markets throughout their and our country and are planted almost everywhere we have been.

We grow several in our vegetable garden on Long Island, and have found seeds in many a Chinatown throughout the US called gong cai or ya cai, even zha cai, or mei gan cai. They are variants of what is commonly known as mustard green family and are similar to arugala. When older, they taste sharper, stronger, spicier, and some say 'perky.'

One can boil, steam, saute, or stir-fry them, and in some markets one may need to ask for them as choy sam, yin choi, gai cai, Chinese spinach, Chinese rape, etc. These are the plants from which canola or rape seed oil comes. Some tell us they can find them as Chinese cabbage of Shanghai cabbage, but in our nearby small Chinese market, that request would get a different green vegetable. What we know is that they are loved by all Chinese and all who love Chinese food.

Mustard green is jie cai in Mandarin. It did originate in China, and botanically some varieties are Brassica juncea, Brssica nigra or Brassica rapa. One elderly chap told us they used to taste more bitter and more sharp than they do today, and he said one can read about them in the ancient Book of Rites written during the Warring States period (403 - 221 BCE).

He also told us people like them with raw fish and sliced shallots in the Spring, and with jia ca seeds in the fall. Some of his friends call them leaf mustard or pot herb mustard xue li hong_ stem mustard gong cai), tuber mustard (zha cai), mustard buds (yibin ya cai) and root mustard, but he does not. That last item, he tells us, is probably because one kind is made from are pickled turnip pieces which are not even in the mustard green family.

No botanists we, our hope is that many of you can educate us as to more kinds, botanical names, and features of this large group of greens. We believe they are in the genus Lactuca, and as best we know, this is the aster family where one hundred or more species do exist.

These vegetables are popular in many cold dishes. Another fellow told us they are known as dried lettuce and were popular in court dishes in times past. He called them gong cai, but said they look different and are a different green. He also said that most of their stems were written about in older literature, some even referred to as 'buds.' We have found more than a hundred of them, to date, but do express confusion with our notes.

We did read about one factory processing these vegetables, at least the ones called Brassica juncea, and this factory was in business years ago. These days, many factories do, and that older factory was in Yibin City in the Sichuan Province. It was written about and well-known in the early 19th century. They used to dry the stems on poles. We once showed mustard greens hanging on clothes lines many issues back, and were told that in this factory, all narrow leaves are discarded.

We were also told that they cut some up, salt them, and ferment them with star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, fresh ginger, and lots of other things. We did not have a good handle then and still do not know all the ingredients nor the amounts of any one of them.

For those that travel to the Sichuan Province, Yibin is about one hundred and fifty miles from Chengdu, and their brand is famous. A colleague who went there told us they now process them with potassium sorbate and acesulfame-K, but as they do not eat foods with these additives, they bought none. Their children do eat them and shared the packet they had open in their refrigerator. It read "shelf life--a few days after opening." Another brand these children had said "if package bulges, do not eat." This friend also shared their children's recipe; it was from their daughter-in-law, and it follows.
Long Beans with Ya Cai
1 pound long beans, washed
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 Tablespoons minced pork
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
3 slices fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 chili peppers, seeded and minced
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans, chopped
! Tablespoon minced packaged ya cai
2 scallions, Minced, separate white and green parts
1. Discard ends of the long beans and cut them into two-inch pieces.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add half the oil, and stir-fry the pork for one minute until no longer pink, then remove it from the wok and set it aside.
3. Put the rest of the oil in the pan, and stir-fry the long beans for three minutes, then remove then from the pan and set them aside.
4. Fry the garlic and ginger for one minute, add the chili pepper pieces for another minute, then add the Sichuan peppercorns, the ya cai, and the white parts of the scallion, toss and then add th pork and the long beans and stir-fry another minute or two, then remove to a preheated bowl, sprinkle the scallion greens on top, and serve.
Pickled Mustard Greens
1 pound mustard greens, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon dry chili powder
2 teaspoons coarse salt
5 Tablespoons dark brown sugar
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1. Rinse the chopped green and dry them with a clean towel.
2. Mix the chili powder, salt, sugar, and the wine and toss with the mustard greens.
3. Store in clean sterilized glass canning jar and cover with a lid and ring boiled for ten minutes. Keep this in a dark place for one or two weeks, and stir twice a week with a sterilized spoon. Then refrigerate for up to two weeks, then serve.
Mustard Greens with Crab Meat
3 cups fresh-cut mustard green stems, each up to two inches long
1/2 cup crab meat, all cartilage removed
1/2 cup chicken stock
1. Discard any leafy parts on the stems.
2. Heat wok or fry pan and add the crab meat and stir-fry for one minute, then remove from the wok or pan, and set aside.
3. Add mustard greens stems and the stock, and bring to the boil, then cover the pan and reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook for two minutes, then stir, and cook another minute, add the crab meat, stir, and serve.
Pig Ears and Gong Cai
2 pigs ears, blanched, rinsed, and slivered
3 Tablespoons minced gong cai
3 slices fresh ginger, smashed several times
3 scallions, each tied in a knot
3 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark soy sauce
1.2 cup Chinese rice wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 scallion, diced
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1 Tablespoon sesame paste
1 slice fresh ginger, minced finely
1. Put pig ear pieces, half the gong cai, star anise, slices of fresh ginger, knotted scallions, sugar, soy sauce, wine, and half the chicken stock into a pot, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for one hour. Then set aside cool. 2. Now remove the pig ear pieces and discard the liquid or set it aside for another use.
3. Now make a sauce mixing the rest of the gong cai with the minced ginger, diced scallion, mustard powder, sesame paste, and the rest of the chicken stock.
4. Arrange pig ear pieces in a bowl, and pour the sauce over them, and serve.

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