Grow your own oriental vegetables

By By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD - Extension Educator/Food Safety
Featured Article - posted Wed., Apr. 18, 2012
- Contributed Photo

Growing up in upstate New York - white bread and “pop” country - “Chinese” food meant minute rice, a can of chicken chow mein and another can of crispy noodles. Little did we know that the future for oriental cuisine in the American supermarket was so much brighter! The global market has certainly expanded our horizons when it comes to food. In most supermarkets, you can now find oriental short grain (sticky) rice, a variety of soy sauce, tofu, fresh ginger, bok choy and cilantro or five spice powder.

But, even though oriental foods have been stirred into our culinary melting pot for a long time, it seems that many of our American supermarkets have not quite kept up with more recent additions to the menu. When I search the internet for Thai or Japanese recipes or thumb through my favorite Chinese cookbook, I am likely to find that some of the most interesting recipes include hard-to-find ingredients: I am forced to make the trek to the oriental market in New Haven.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a pot of lemongrass in your sunniest window or to step outside your back door for daikon radishes, Thai basil, or baby bok choy?

Well, the answer to your wishes is easily found in your favorite seed catalogue or internet seed purveyor. A recent search of my own turned up Chinese cabbage, daikon, mizuna mustard greens, lemongrass, asian eggplant, green and red Malabar spinach; tatsoi, bekana; kabocha squash; HonTsai Tai (flowering broccoli) and all types of bok choy (or pak choi).

Read your catalogues well as you search. You will need to seek out varieties that grow successfully in your planting zone (Connecticut is primarily zone 6, with some areas identified as zone 5 in Litchfield, Tolland and Windham counties). If your garden space is small, you can supplement your Asian garden with pots of Thai basil, chives or garlic chives and coriander (the leaves of which are known as cilantro).

Lemongrass has become a popular ingredient for the adventurous cook. It has a lemony zip and slices of fresh stalk are often added to spring rolls, fish and shrimp dishes and salads. You can actually start it from stalks purchased from the produce section of your supermarket or oriental food shop. Start with fresh-looking, plump stalks. Trim a few inches from the top and strip the stalks of any dead leaves. Place in water in a sunny window sill until roots emerge and grow several inches. Then it is time to plant in potting soil mix - burying the roots and about an inch or so of the bulb. Keep moist, but not soggy. It might be best to keep this plant in a pot that can be moved outdoors in the summer and brought back to the sunny window during the colder months.

You might want to try one or two new vegetables and an herb or two when you are first experimenting with these new-to-you plant selections. There are lots of more common vegetables that often show up in Asian cooking. Keep these comforting old friends in your garden as well: bell peppers (green or red), onions, scallions, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, peas, potatoes and spinach.

Adding more Asian vegetables to your menu offers the extra added benefit of good nutrition. A Cornell scientist, T. Colin Campbell, studied the diets of Chinese men and women, as part of a large Chinese-British-American study in the late 1980s. What the study found was that diets with the biggest impact on the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes were high in animal fat and animal protein. The Chinese diet was found to be perfectly healthy - with sufficient iron, protein and calcium, even though the Chinese consume very little meat. It also contributed three times more fiber than a U.S. diet. Asian greens are also excellent sources of vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium and iron. They also add a variety of interesting flavors - bitter, sweet and tangy.

Generally, I am not one to fret over the amount of vitamin A or cholesterol or even red meat in my diet. The best advice I think is to eat a variety of foods. Too much of anything is probably not so good for you. Adding Chinese or Thai recipes to your repertoire increases the variety of your diet. Because these cuisines rely heavily on vegetables, grains and tofu, they can replace a meal or two of traditional American fare dominated by meat, cheese or French fries.

For more information about growing oriental vegetables in your garden, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at 877-486-6271, visit, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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