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Dou Miao

by Sirina Tsai

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Summer Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(2) page(s): 5 and 8

Dou miao or pea shoots, like many Asian vegetables, go by a confusing number of names. Some people call them 'pea vines' others say 'pea tips,' still others call them 'pea stems.' Because they are the tender tips of the edible pea plant--the top several leaves and the tendril that ends the vine, different names are used. Pea shoots is translated from the Chinese as dou miao as the Mandarin transliteration or dau miu in Cantonese. These dou miao are also sometimes called wan dou miao, wan dou being the name of the pea plant. No matter the name, they are always delicate, nutty, and spinach-like. However, unlike spinach, they do not harbor grit and they do not leave an astringent coating on the tongue. Also, because the stems are as tender as the leaves, they do not have to be removed, as spinach stems often do.

Over the last ten years, pea shoots have appeared with increasing regularity in Chinese restaurants. However, they are not often listed on the English menu. One has to ask for them, or be able to read Chinese. For this reason, I think it best to refer to them as dou miao, because that is the name that will get results--asking for ‘pea vines’ is likely to result in quizzical looks.

In Chinese restaurants, dou miao are usually sauteed quickly with garlic; sometimes they appear in soup. Some say they are best sauteed in lard. I have no doubt that this is true, though I have never asked any restaurant what fat they use. I eat whatever oil comes with the cooked dish, no complaints, and love it.

In one of my early encounters with dou miao, I went to a restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown with a Chinese-American friend and her aunt. My friend’s aunt ordered a flurry of dishes, including sauteed dou miao, which was on the special Chinese-language menu. Our enormous and busy meal attracted the attention of the next table, which had no Asians. They wanted to know what that green vegetable was.

We recommended it highly; they practiced saying dou miao which they and we pronounced as 'dough + meow.' However, they got spinach, which hopefully was a rare accident. If you order dou miao and get something that tastes suspiciously familiar, it is worth raising the issue with the staff at the restaurant, both to curb such practices and to taste the real thing. Or you can make dou miao at home. Fresh pea tips are available in many Chinese grocery stores. They cost three or four dollars a pound, and are available most of the year, though less frequently in winter when it is difficult to keep pea plants happy.

The stems branch are hollow all the way up to the curly tendrils. The oval leaves are bright green, slightly larger than silver dollars, and grow in pairs every inch or two up the stem. It is normal for the leaves to have a powdery blush.

When they first arrived in stores several years ago, dou miao were often pre-packed in plastic bags. Now they sell well enough that most Chinese vegetable stores keep them in loose piles. This is the better way to buy them as you can choose only the handfuls that look good to you. As with any green vegetable, the leaves should be green and not wilted. Dou miao are usually very clean, since they come from the top of the plant, and away from dirt. They can occasionally shelter a few bugs, and while I am no insect-lover, I take their presence as a sign that the produce is very fresh. Dou miao keep well in the refrigerator if packed closely, but not crushingly tight, in a plastic bag and they are best used within a few days. I have, however, kept them this way for up to two weeks.

Dou miao’s popularity in the Asian community has spawned a variation. Instead of waiting for pea plants to reach adulthood, some growers harvest young plants whole when they have about six leaves. The young sprouts are cheaper than shoots, sometimes costing as little as ninety-nine cents a pound. Their leaves are dime-sized and they blush less. The stems are pale, straight, skinny, and solid. They tend to be less buggy than large dou miao, and they are very clean even though they grow lower to the ground. Sometimes a sprout will come with the seed still attached; this is because they are grown either hydroponically or indoors, where the rain cannot splash dirt on them. On a trip to Beijing, someone I know saw small dou miao for sale on the street. There, the seeds rested in a tray of water. Just above the tray, the vendor had set a metal grid which supported the little stems growing through it. Anyone who wanted these dou miao probably got a bunch cut on the spot; I would call that very fresh produce, indeed.

The two types of dou miao can be used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same. Shoots, from mature plants, are sweeter and softer when cooked, and they have a higher proportion of leaf to stem. A plateful of sauteed shoots is uniformly dark green, whereas sauteed sprouts look like spinach mixed with a lot of lime-green spaghetti bits. The shoots also have the occasional tough stem. Get rid of it by twisting the bottom of the shoot to see if it breaks off easily. If not, you may want to trim each one discarding the lowest joint.

Raw sprouts, on the other hand, make better salads; they are crisper and taste like fresh peas. Their daintiness makes them pretty, as well as tasty. Also, they are more likely to be available when large ones are not. Young plants are easier to nurture in greenhouses year-round.

In Chinese, the two types are distinguished by calling them large and small or da dou miao and xia dou miao, respectively. This linguistic tidbit is not important in the grocery store, because you can easily see the difference between the large shoots and the small sprouts. However, in a restaurant you might want to ask if the dish is made with large or small pea shoots for two reasons. One, to ensure you get the type you want in the dish you want. In stir-fries, da dou miao are more tender; in soup, both are fine. In salads, xia dou miao have the better flavor. And two, to know what you are getting for your money. Large dou miao are much more expensive, as raw ingredients, than are the small ones. This difference is not always reflected in menu prices.

So that you can try them at home, I have included some recipes below, enjoy!
Sirina Tsai is a food writer and trademark lawyer. She studied cooking at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. A native of California, Ms. Tsai now lives in Washington, D.C.
Sauteed Dou Miao with Garlic
1/4 cup vegetable oil
6 to 8 large garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
1 pound dou miao, preferably large
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water
1. In a large saute pan or wok, heat oil on high. When it ripples, add the garlic and toss quickly until fragrant. Then, add the dou miao and salt, alternately and in batches. Letting each batch of dou miao wilt slightly before adding more.
2. When the moisture from the leaves evaporates, add the water. Toss just until all the leaves are wilted.
3. Remove immediately from heat.
Serves 6.
Dou Miao with Fermented Bean Curd
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups, lightly packed, large or small dou miao, torn (about two ounces)
3 Tablespoons freshly mashed fermented bean curd square or grated Parmesan cheese
dash of white pepper
1 lemon, quartered
1. In a saucepan, bring the broth to a boil, then add the dou miao and remove the pan from the heat.
2. As soon as the dou miao wilts, stir in fermented bean curd or the Parmesan cheese, and the white pepper.
3. Serve with the lemon wedges, but advise your guests that the soup is good with or without them; each person can taste it both ways.
Red and Black Dou Miao Salad
4 cups tightly packed, or 4 ounces, small dou miao, torn into several sections, each
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion, cut into one- to two-inch lengths
1/4 cup finely chopped black olives, preferably oil-cured (about 18 olives)
half a lemon
freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1. Toss the dou miao, onion, and olives thoroughly.
2. Drizzle with them lemon juice and pepper, then toss again with the olive oil. This is good both freshly made and after the dou miao wilts from the lemon juice.
Western-influenced Dou Miao Salad
4 cups, lightly packed, small dou miao, torn (about four ounces)
1 cup julienne raw apple (Fuji or Golden Delicious are good choices)
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese, preferably Roquefort
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Combine the dou miao, apple, and blue cheese and toss carefully and thoroughly until cheese is well-distributed.
2. Then toss it with the vinegar, salt, and pepper.

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