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Veggie Buds are Mustard Greens

by Jacqueline M. Newman

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.

Mustard Greens, Simple and Easy
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup thinly sliced onions
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and chopped finely
8 cups cong cai or any other type of mustard green, rinsed and cut or torn into two-inch pieces
3 Tablespoons chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon mixed salt and pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Cut away center ribs and sliver them, tear rest of the leaves into one-inch pieces.
2. Heat a wok or large sauce pan, then add the oil, and just before it smokes, add the onions and the garlic, reduce the heat, and stir-fry for about eight minutes until these vegetables start to brown.
3. Add the bigger pieces of the mustard greens and the stock, and stir-fry for about three minutes until the greens wilt and most liquid evaporates. Then push them to one side and add slivers of their stems, salt and pepper, and the sesame oil, and stir-fry for one minute before tossing everything together. Then serve everything together on pre-heated plates.
Pigs Ears and Gong Cai
2 pork ears, scalded and rinsed
3 Tablespoons minced gong cai, scalded, then divided in half
3 star anise
3 slices fresh ginger, smashed
3 scallions, each tied in a knot
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark soy sauce
1/2 cup Chinese rice wine
2 cups chicken stock
1 slice fresh ginger, minced
1 scallion, diced
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1 Tablespoon sesame paste
3 Tablespoons chicken stock, brought to the boil
1. Put pork ears, half the gong cai, star anise, fresh ginger slices, knotted scallions, sugar, soy sauce, rice wine, and chicken stock in a one-quart pot and bring to just below the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for one hour. Remove the pig ears, allow to cool, and sliver them cutting long pieces, if any, in half; then discard the liquid.
2. Make a sauce us the other half of the gong cai, the fresh ginger, diced scallion, mustard powder, sesame paste, and hot chicken stock. Mix well.
3. Arrange pig ear slivers on a small deep plate, and pour the sauce over them.
String Beans, Fermented Black Beans, and Ya Cai
1 pound long beans or string beans
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil, separated
3 Tablespoons minced pork
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
2 sliced fresh ginger, peeled and minced
3 chili peppers, seeded and cut into small pieces
1 and 1/2 Tablespoons fermented black beans
1 Tablespoon crushed Sichuan peppercorns
2 Tablespoons ya cai
1/2 cup of chicken broth
2 scallions minced and separated into white and green pieces
1. Cut ends off the green beans and then cut them into two-inch pieces.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add one tablespoon of the oil and stir-fry the pork for one minute until no longer pink. Then take it out and set it aside on a small plate or bowl.
3. Add another tablespoon of the oil, then add the string beans and stir-fry about two or three minutes. Remove them from the pan and set them aside on a different plate.
4. Add the last tablespoon of the oil and stir-fry the minced garlic and ginger for one minute, then add the chili pepper pieces and the black beans and stir-fry another minute. Next add the Sichuan peppercorns, ya cai, broth, white parts of the scallions, pork, and the green beans. Stir-fry for one to two minutes before removing everything to a serving bowl. Sprinkle the scallion greens on top and serve.
Bean Curd with Mustard Greens
1 small onion coarsely sliced
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil or lard
1 pound Swatow mustard greens, a popular variety or another kind, cut into one by half inch pieces
1/4 pound ham, cubed in similar sizes
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 package firm or soft bean curd, cut into one-inch cubes
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 cup chicken or other stock
1. Brown the onion in a dry wok or pan for one minute, then add the oil or lard and saute one minute more, stirring all the time.
2. Add greens, ham, and salt and stir-fry for two more minutes.
3. Add the bean curd, sesame oil, and the stock, turn heat to high, cover, and cook two minutes, then remove the cover and turn the heat to medium. Continue stirring and cooking for another four minutes, then serve.
Cold Mustard Greens
1 pound mustard greens
1/2 cup soy beans
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black vinegar
1. Cut mustard greens into one inch pieces, then simmer them in one quart of boiling water for five minutes, then drain and reserve the water, if desired, for another use.
2.Add soy beans, carrots, soy sauce, sesame oil, and the vinegar, cover, and simmer for three minutes, then serve.
Pork and Mustard Greens
1 cup slivered fresh or cooked pork
1 Tablespoon dry sherry or a rice wine
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
3 Tablespoons sesame oil
2 cups diced mustard greens
2 Tablespoons red-in-snow or ya cai
1. Marinate pork in the sherry, soy sauce, and the vegetable oil for twenty minutes.
2. Add the onion and cornstarch, stir well, then let everything rest for ten minutes.
3. Heat the sesame oil in a wok or fry pan, add the pork mixture, and stir-fry for two minutes.
4. Add the mustard greens and red-in-snow or pickled mustard greens. Stir-fry for two more minutes, then serve.
Black Mushrooms and Mustard Greens
8 large dried Chinese black mushrooms
2 Tablespoons rendered chicken fat or lard
2 Tablespoon cornstarch, divided
1 cup chicken broth
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 pound mustard greens cut into two-inch pieces
1. Soak the mushrooms in one cup of hot water for twenty minutes, take them out and squeeze out the water reserving it. Next cut off the stems and discard them, and cut the mushroom caps in quarters.
2. Coat the mushrooms on their undersides with the fat, then dust them with half the cornstarch.
3. Mix the rest of the cornstarch with the broth and stir it well.
4. Heat vegetable oil and fry the mushroom caps, gill sides up for one minute, then add the salt and oyster sauce and stir-fry for another minute before adding the broth mixture and the greens. Bring to the boil, stir-fry for three minutes stirring all the time, then serve.
Belly Pork and Two Kinds of Mustard Greens
1 pound fresh belly pork
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoon crushed Chinese brown sugar
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cloves peeled fresh garlic, smashed
3 Tablespoons ya cai which are fermented mustard greens
1 pound fresh mustard greens, cut into one-inch pieces
1. Simmer the belly pork in water for one hour, remove from the water, dry, and coat with the soy sauce, brown sugar, and the rice wine. Let this rest for half an hour.
2.Heat a wok or fry pan and add the oil and fry the belly pork for three minutes on all sides. The remove and drain it, and when cool, cut into half-inch squares.
3. Add the garlic to the oil in the pan, and stir-fry one minute, then add the ya cai and the mustard greens and stir well before adding one cup of boiling water.
4. Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for one and a half hours; then serve.
Mustard Greens with Dried bean Curd
1/2 pound fresh or reconstituted dried mustard greens, blanched in boiling water for two minutes, then drained
3 squares of dried bean curd, coarsely diced
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/4 pound shrimp, peeled with their veins removed, then sliced in half the long way
1 small fresh or dried chili pepper, seeds removed and discarded, and coarsely chopped
2 fresh cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1. Mix blanched mustard greens and the dried bean curd and set aside.
2. Heat a wok or fry pan and add the oil, then stir-fry the greens and the bean curd for two minutes.
3. Add all the remaining ingredients and stir-fry for two minutes, then serve in a pre-heated bowl.

pickled mustard greens Ingredients:

2 pounds fresh mustard greens
3 tablespoons coarse salt
3 cups Chinese rice vinegar
1 cup granulated sugar
6 slices peeled fresh ginger
6 red chili peppers


1. Cut mustard greens into two-inch pieces and toss with half the salt and set aside for two hours.
2 In a wok or saucepan, add the remaining salt, rice vinegar, and sugar. Bring to the boil and stir until the sugar dissolves, then add the ginger and the chili peppers and stir. Remove from the heat and allow this to cool.
3. Drain the mustard green pieces and add them to the sterilized jars. Pour the sugar water over them, shake the jars to allow any bubbles to rise to the top, then cover and refrigerate.
4. Shake the jars once or twice every day. They are ready to eat after three days, best in a week, and good for up to three weeks.

Pickled Mustard Greens II
2 pounds fresh mustard greens
3 tablespoons coarse salt
3 cups Chinese rice vinegar
1 cup granulated sugar
6 slices peeled fresh ginger
6 red chili peppers
1. Cut mustard greens into two-inch pieces and toss with half the salt and set aside for two hours.
2 In a wok or saucepan, add the remaining salt, rice vinegar, and sugar. Bring to the boil and stir until the sugar dissolves, then add the ginger and the chili peppers and stir. Remove from the heat and allow this to cool.
3. Drain the mustard green pieces and add them to the sterilized jars. Pour the sugar water over them, shake the jars to allow any bubbles to rise to the top, then cover and refrigerate.
4. Shake the jars once or twice every day. They are ready to eat after three days, best in a week, and good for up to three weeks.

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