It takes some work to make sense of all the varieties of greens used throughout Asia. The names can be confusing-especially since we are talking about greens that come from many different countries: China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, etc. By no means is there time and space to do a complete guide to Asian greens on a blog. There are entire books dedicated to the subject. The goal for this article is to share with you my enthusiasm for some vegetables that are both fun to grow, but also delicious and unique to the western palette.
Most of the greens I will be mentioning here (with noted exceptions) are cool season vegetables in Tucson. You will plant them in the fall when the temperatures don’t cause them to bolt. All the plants we talk about here will do best if direct-seeded in the ground, and thinned out to provide room for each head to grow. If you are growing young greens, you can grow them much closer together. I like to treat each crop in a variety of ways: let some grow close together and cut as needed, and let some have space and get large. Sometimes this is by accident because my knees or back will be hurting because I will have been thinning for a while and finally say, “fuck it” and let the rest grow close together. Always pay attention to what the eventual dimensions of each plant will be and space out accordingly, especially with greens which can vary from very small to very very large.
Be sure to plant them in full sun, in good garden soil that is well amended. Once seeds have germinated, and you have thinned out seedlings, leaving behind the best ones to grow large, mulch plants to insulate their root systems from dramatic temperature shifts and preserve moisture. This is always a good idea for any crop. Feed with fish emulsion, kelp and/or compost tea occasionally, depending on how rich the soil already is. Water availability should be very regular and steady. If you let crops dry out and/or are too sporadic with watering, plants may bolt.
Harvesting instructions vary to each variety, however with many you can use as mature heads, or grow as cut-and-come-again seedling crop–when seedlings come up and have grown to about 4-5 inches high, you can sheer the tops (leave behind the original seedling leaves, called cotyledons, and they will grow back again). Cut-and-come-again crops are delicious and tender. You can do this quite a few times on some varieties. Another thing done in Asia that is somewhat alien to westerners is growing greens specifically to have them bolt. In the west we tend to throw away or compost such bolting crops. In Asia crops are sometimes planted at times and in ways to encourage bolting and are harvested right when they start to flower. They are used as stir-fry greens. Next time you have bolting cabbages or greens of any sort, turn your failure into a success and learn to transfer such results into culinary results rather than just going to the compost pile.
A note on varieties: names can vary much with these crops. Also, new varieties, including the Western contribution to Asian varieties, appear all the time. Mentioned here are just some general groups and some specific examples. You will have to play–trying out each variety for yourself and seeing which types grow best for you, and which types you are most into eating. You can sometimes be very successful with a particular crop, but don’t want to eat any of it. Grow what you want to eat. Or find ways of preparing that successful crop in ways you can enjoy. Or…trade for crops you want with fellow gardeners.
The Mild Brassicas
Headed Chinese Cabbage, or Napa Cabbage
There are two types: barrel headed and tall cylindrical. There are also many types that defy these categories, especially as breeding continues, so don’t be confused if you find a headed type of Chinese cabbage that almost looks like a loose-headed Chinese cabbage. These types really need a good season, so don’t start these late. These cabbages naturally grow very tight, but are sometimes encouraged to be whiter and more tender (sometimes called blanching) by being tied up. If you want a greener leaf, let them grow naturally without helping them. Chinese cabbage will store in the fridge for weeks sometimes even months. Wash clean before putting in the fridge, and store in dry paper bag, not plastic.
Loose-Headed Chinese Cabbage
The variety of loose-headed cabbages is increasing every day. Crops can vary by leaf color, leaf shape, how tight rosettes are, leaf texture (glossy and smooth to crinkled or ‘savoyed’ and just about everything in between). Leaf midribs may be swollen and thick or diminutive and underemphasized. The “fluffy top” varieties are self-blanching. They will be darker colored and looser on the outside, but whiter and tighter on the inside.
It is not easy to group such a diverse group of plants but in general varieties of pak choi include Chinese white pak type, “soup spoon” type, green leaf stalk type, golden yellow type, and squat or canton type. Pak choi differs in flavor generally from the chinese cabbage varieties listed above by having less subtile flavor. Crops are more nutty, sweet, with more of a hint of spicy mustard flavor, though it is still considered a mild green. Pak choi is generally easier and quicker to grow than chinese cabbages.
Rosette Pak Choi
The gorgeous, concentrically arranged foliage on these ancient varieties make plants look flattened, especially in colder weather (in warmer weather, plants will be more erect). Grow plants toward the south edge of your greens bed and even use as a sort of ground cover around larger chinese cabbages or pak choi. Varieties listed as ‘prostrate’ are lowest growing. Obviously such ground hugging plants may be susceptible to leaf-eating insects. Preemptively put diatomaceous earth about the base of each plant to protect against such critters.
Choy Sum, Flowering Brassicas
Many varieties of brassicas are grown specifically as a flowering greens used fresh or in stir-fries. At first this may seem strange until you realize that some are the asian renditions of broccoli or broccoli raab. But the Asian use of flowering greens is a lot more common and diversified. In fact, the variety of flowering greens in Asia is so mind boggling, the terminology for sub groups in the flowering brassicas is quite confused. So don’t be intimidated by terminology or get confused by names. Just look for what you want, or just explore. In recent years broccolini (developed by the Japanese) has become very popular in western cuisine.
Many varieties of the flowering brassicas are purple (the flowers, leaves, and/or leaf veins are purple). Some are grown, like broccoli, to be harvested before the flower buds break. Others are collected with the flowers are open. Some are leafier, and others are much stemmier. A few varieties have well developed seeds which are used for their oil content: cooking and lamp oil.
These plants are no the the broccoli plants most westerners grew up with. They are almost alien-looking. The stems are most important here, and plants look like an upright cabbage, and when cooked and trimmed there is something almost asparagus-like about them. Though flower buds are eaten (like with broccoli) it is the stems that are emphasized. They are often sauteed and eaten with oyster sauce though plants can be used in numerous ways, including fresh. Sometimes the stems will need some trimming if plants are harvested a little too late and have gotten a little tough. Best to harvest when tender.
This crops is certainly under the radar in the west. Plants are a happy medium between the spiciness of a true mustard green and the mildness of a chinese cabbage. They are great fresh or in stir-fries and are probably one of the easiest of the Asian greens to grow. Leaves, stems, flowering stems are all eaten.
This is probably the most popular of the mild Asian mustard greens (and spicier). Mizuna is a staple in the west now, found in most mixed greens packages and even more popular in Europe. This is especially true of the young-collected greens. It is also an exceptionally pretty plant to grow.
Lesser known than mizuna, mibuna is one of my favorites. It’s unusual growth form is attractive and the taste is delicious, more distinct than mizuna, especially as the plants mature. They are somewhat new to the western garden, but gaining in popularity. In the east they are not just eaten raw or cooked, but also pickled.
Spicy Mustard Greens
These include the giant-leaved varieties and the wrapped heart and headed types. Varieties are numerous but in general are not just delicious and tasty, but are also quite beautiful.
These have coarser leaves, almost like daikon radish leaves. They do not like warm temperatures are are best grown in the coldest part of our winter in Tucson. These plants are somewhat smaller than the broad-leaved mustards and slightly tamer in flavor.
Green In The Snow Mustard
These jagged-edged leaved varieties were among the first introduced in the west. They are hardy, vigorous plants that are easy to grow and pretty in the garden.
These mustards vary from being slightly curly on the edges of the leaves to having deeply dissected leaves. They vary in color from green to deep purple. Plants have a peppery flavor, very distinctive from the other mustards.
Varieties include horned mustard, parcel and pocket mustard, pressed-stem mustard and more. The distinction with these are the prominent, exaggerated stems and/or midribs. These curious plants are fun to grow and are prepared in many ways, including several methods of pickling.
These plants produce grotesque-looking fleshy roots that are made into pickles. Very hard and easy to grow.
Kitazawa Seed Company is always my favorite for Asian heirlooms. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds also has some decent varieties, as does Gourmet Seed International. If you know of some sources I have not listed, I am ALWAYS looking for new interesting sources, particularly those that offer different varieties. One source I forget about sometimes, but has amazing variety is Agro Haitai.