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From the Ground Up — Asian delights not your grandma’s vegetables

Story and photos by Dr. Cynthia Wood

I’ve always loved Asian food — hot spicy ma la-flavored dishes liberally showered with cilantro from Szechuan, bold pork dishes flavored with both fresh and pickled chilies from Hunan, peanut sauces from Thailand, slithery sweet potato noodles mixed with a multitude of vegetables from Korea and simply stir-fried sweet potato greens from Vietnam.

When I finally got to visit some of my favorite Asian countries, I was especially impressed with the many uses of herbs and vegetables by local cooks and vowed to try some of their techniques.

Finding ingredients 20 years ago was difficult. I could always buy what I needed in Little Vietnam in Richmond, but a two-hour round trip wasn’t always convenient. So . . . I began to experiment with growing my own specialty crops, such as Japanese eggplant, bok choy, lemongrass, garlic chives, rau ram, shishitos peppers, even Chinese bitter melon and long beans.

Bok choy, or pak choi as it’s also known, is a fast growing, cool weather crop that matures in 45 to 50 days. It has crisp white stalks and tender green leaves. All parts of the plant are edible. After the danger of frost is past, sow seeds or transplant small plants from the local garden center.

Bok choy can be grown in raised beds, traditional garden rows or in containers. It’s a great choice for edible landscaping. Dwarf varieties of bok choy, also known as baby bok choy, can be cooked whole. They are especially tasty steamed and drizzled with sesame oil, finely minced ginger and a bit of soy sauce. Larger varieties can be chopped into small pieces and added to stir-fried dishes.

If you like eggplant, then you’ll love the Japanese Ichiban type. It’s just like regular eggplant only better because it’s smaller, contains fewer seeds and is sweet and mild, not bitter.

Eggplant likes warm weather, so it’s important to delay planting it until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. Ichiban-type eggplant can be grown in containers, as well as raised beds or regular garden plots, and the fruits are ready to harvest in about 50 days. Try this eggplant cubed and added to stir-fries or cut in half, steamed and topped with chili crunch.

We southerners often forget that we’re not the only people who love sweet potatoes. There is some debate as to where sweet potatoes originated, but the latest research seems to indicate they were first grown and eaten in Asia.

Walk down a busy street in China on a cool fall day and you’ll find vendors selling roasted sweet potatoes on every corner. They were once considered food for farmers who couldn’t afford anything else, but now the food of poverty is trendy. Visit Vietnam and you’ll find that stir-fried sweet potato shoots and leaves are an everyday staple.

They are a revelation. Plant sweet potato sets just as you always do. As the vines grow, harvest some of the shoots and leaves; just be sure to leave plenty to support the growing sweet potatoes. The shoots and leaves can be cooked like spinach or chopped and added to soups. They’re my favorite summer green.

There are several herbs that add a new level of interest to Asian dishes — lemongrass and rau ram, or Vietnamese coriander. Both are available at local garden centers in early spring and are easy to grow in pots.

Tried and true favorites are always an important part of the home garden, but this year, consider adding one or two crops that are new to you.

Be willing to experiment, observe how new crops grow and be prepared to feast.