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Beyond broccoli

(article, Cathy Erway)

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My first forays into food shopping were, like many, with Mom, and the queenly view was from the child's seat in the grocery cart. We had two distinct destinations: the American store, where we picked up jars of tomato sauce and boxes of cereal, and the Asian store, where we filled our cart with jars of pickled cabbage and packs of noodles. 


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The produce departments at both stores looked like topsy-turvy versions of each other. At the Asian store, eggplants were shaped like zucchinis, green beans could be nearly three feet long, and something resembling a bloated cucumber sported a thin coating of peach fuzz.

Since my childhood grocery trips, conventional supermarkets have broadened their range of vegetable offerings. “It used to be that snow peas were avant-garde,” says Sara Deseran, author of [%bookLink code=0811827593 "Asian Vegetables: From Long Beans to Lemongrass, A Simple Guide to Asian Produce"]. “There’s a wide variety of \[Asian\] vegetables available now that weren’t before.”

According to the USDA, Asian-Americans now operate more than 10,000 farms in the country. As a result, Asian produce is more available domestically, in both conventional supermarkets and Asian groceries. And our national palate has broadened in recent years; what was once considered "exotic" is now often expected. 

Here’s a selection of the season's tastiest Asian veggies. 

[%image reference-image width=300 float=right caption="Water spinach"]Water spinach
The Chinese word for this leafy green translates to “hollow heart vegetable,” named for its crunchy hollow stems. This vegetable is indeed packed with water, similar to watercress, but its deep green leaves are dense with vitamins. The leaves are delicate-tasting enough to be prepared raw or quickly cooked. In Asian cuisines, the stems are sometimes chopped into small tubes and served separately from the leaves. A common preparation for water spinach might be a stir-fry with bits of pork and chiles. 


[%image melon width=300 float=right caption="Fuzzy melon"]Fuzzy melon (or fuzzy squash)
This long, fat, cylindrical melon or squash has a thin coating of fuzz on its green surface — which is invariably peeled before cooking. Its crisp white flesh becomes slightly opaque when cooked and soaks up other flavors like a sponge. This makes it ideal for dicing and cooking in soups, braises, or stir-fries. (Or try this recipe for a twist on a traditional steamed-and-stuffed fuzzy melon recipe.) 


[%image lotus width=300 float=right caption="Lotus root"]Lotus root
What the lotus root lacks in flavor it makes up for in appearance. It’s a starchy tuber with a crunchy, watery texture and a mild sweet flavor. Its skin is usually peeled for eating, and cavities along its length make for a uniform design when sliced into discs. Typically, these roots grow from July to February in tropical climates; Deseran notes that they are often imported from Asia for this reason, but are sometimes farmed in the summer in the United States. Lotus root can be eaten raw as well as stir-fried or braised with other vegetables and meats.


[%image yuloy width=300 float=right caption="Yu choy"]Yu choy
Distinguished by its clusters of yellow flowers (rather than white, as with a similar vegetable known as Chinese broccoli), yu choy is another common leafy flowering green with thick, edible stems. Its taste is pleasantly bitter and peppery, though milder than broccoli rabe. It is delicious on its own as a quick stir-fry dish with garlic and a touch of salt. 


[%image eggplant width=300 float=right caption="Asian eggplant"]Asian eggplant (or Japanese eggplant)
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a recipe that instructs you to draw out the bitter juices of the Asian eggplant before cooking it, since there's little bitterness in these mild, cylindrical eggplants. Think of them as baby eggplants. They’re lovely stuffed with a combination of meat and veggies and baked until the skins darken to a deep purple, or sliced up and stir-fried in a flavorful sauce.

p(bio). Cathy Erway keeps the blog Not Eating Out in New York. She lives in Brooklyn.

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