Taiwan

An ode to Taiwanese leafy greens

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Island greens are not only nutritious, but also come in a variety of flavors and textures.

STORY JEREMY OLIVIER, PHOTOS BY BRYN THOMAS

I recently had a heated conversation with an expat in Taipei. I casually mentioned that one of my favorite things about Taiwan is the wide variety of leafy greens available in street markets and restaurants. In fact, I wasn’t much of a fan of vegetables until my long-term move to Taiwan in early 2013. That changed when I arrived and discovered how many options were available.

My friend, with whom I usually agree on matters of culinary significance, laughed at my spouting admiration. She argues that the island’s abundance of cruciferous fun has fallen short of expectations because the leaves are “hard and sticky” and they are always overly packaged in plastic when bought at the supermarket. She adds that people can often find tiny insects in the creases and crevices of plants, even after they’ve been cooked into dishes — an appetite killer for many.

I don’t believe it; a little dirt or the occasional tiny snail shell hasn’t dampened my love for Taiwan’s vast edible vegetable fields. So as I prepare to wrap up my first decade of living on the island this winter, I thought I’d make a short list of some of my favorite produce that vegetarian lovers shouldn’t miss while in Taiwan.

water spinach
(water spinach, kongxin cai)

Chinese name is water spinach Literally “hollow vegetable,” it is named for the hollow stems that make up most of the edible part of this plant. Although the English name bears the “Chinese” descriptor, water spinach can be found in East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian cuisines.In Taiwan, water spinach (or kongxin cai In Mandarin) are often fried with oil, soy sauce, garlic and ginger when eaten alone. It can also be made with thinly sliced ​​beef or lamb, marinated and fried in a delicious sha cha sauce (also known as Chinese barbecue sauce).

Great texture, just the right amount of crunch, kongxin cai Inexpensive and plentiful, making it a healthy and inexpensive addition to almost any meal. Be sure to bring some with you when you floss, as the tiny particles from plants can easily get lodged between your teeth.

Chinese water spinach (water spinach, kongxin cai)

sweet potato leaves
(sweet potato leaves, digua ye)

During my first year on the island, I was shocked to learn that one of my favorite green vegetables in Taiwan was once considered a last resort for impoverished Taiwanese. Not only that, but these leaves, which grow from the top of the sweet potato plant, were once mainly used as pig feed.

green veggies7
Once mainly pig feed, sweet potato leaves
more and more popular
Taiwanese diners.

That’s okay, because this vegetable has grown in popularity here over the past decade. People have realized that not only is it delicious in a range of dishes, but it is also packed with nutrients. The sweet potato leaves provide diners with an alphabet soup of vitamins, as well as essential minerals such as sodium, potassium, zinc, magnesium and manganese. So next time you pick up a bag of locally grown yams from your neighborhood market, consider grabbing the aboveground parts of the plants too!

crested floating heart
(water lotus, shuilian)

True, it is not a leaf at all, but waterweed, a flowering plant mainly grown in small ponds in southern Taiwan. Also known as “white water snowflake”, because of the delicate white flowers blooming on the water surface, shuilian It can be bought in bundles at traditional markets.

Vegetables sautéed in oil, a little minced garlic, some mushrooms and a few slices of spicy red pepper are delicious. It’s also great with a little shredded pork, and it’s a favorite in milk and spicy hotpot soups when the weather starts to cool. Meinong, a small Hakka village about an hour south of Kaohsiung, is famous for growing this crunchy and tasty plant.

green veggies5 1
crested floating heart (water lotusshuilian)

Taiwan cabbage
(Taiwanese cabbage, taiwan xiao bai cai)

Taiwanese cabbage, which is lighter in color and thinner in texture than the common dark green variety, is featured in many soup dishes in Taiwan. It’s also packed with nutrients and is a great source of vitamins A and C, as well as potassium, magnesium, B6 and iron, among others. Visitors to the National Palace Museum will recognize it as the subject of the ornate and well-known “Jade Cabbage” carving, and throngs of tourists scramble to see it for themselves. I used to opt for the smaller bok choy to accompany home-cooked meals, but now I find myself hunting for Taiwanese specialties whenever I can.

chayote sprouts
(Gracilaria, long xu cai)

The Chinese term for this unique green plant literally translates to “asparagus”.know at a glance successful selenium You can see why. From the central stem grow countless filamentous, tangled shoots and tendrils of leaves. This plant is not unique to Taiwan, it is also found throughout Central and South America.

Across the Pacific, chayote is used both as a culinary ingredient and as a medicinal tea, which has been shown to reduce inflammation and treat a variety of ailments. In Asia, it’s often cooked as a side dish, and its mild, semi-sweet flavor goes well with a dash of sesame salad dressing.

green veggies2
Just one glance at chayote is enough to explain its Chinese name, “longxucai”.

sub dish
(A dish, a cai)

I’m adding it to the list not because it’s a great vegetable – although it is – but because I love the name. Are there any other natural foods in Taiwan that have Roman letters in their names?A layman’s little secret: “A Cai” is actually just a local variety in the Hokkien dialect Alfalfa Lettuce, or lettuce. It was introduced to Taiwanese agriculture during the Japanese colonial period in the first half of the 20th century, and grows year-round in the coastal areas of central Taiwan.

green veggies1
A Choy is a local variety in Hokkien Alfalfa Lettuceor lettuce.

Almost any preparation method for A-choy will yield great results. I find it has a slightly softer, silkier texture when boiled or blanched. Like all the other veggies on this list, they are great stir-fried in a wok with a little soy sauce and rice wine.

Taiwan cabbage
(Cabbage, gaoli cai)

This is the ancestor of all green vegetables in Taiwan. If you want to eat it, you have to eat it desperately gaoli cai When visiting the island. Most stir-fry restaurants serve it as a main dish. Almost every bento box I buy here is filled with what is also known in the West as “flat cabbage”.

green veggies4
Taiwanese cabbage is a common menu feature that goes with almost any dish.

Unless you count the inevitable big spoonfuls of coleslaw that comes with the occasional Texas BBQ, I must admit that cabbage was never really a part of my diet until I left my childhood home in America, but now it is One of my main sources of fiber and vitamin C.

where i really fell in love gaoli cai In an open-air indigenous restaurant in the central mountainous area of ​​Nantou County. That was when I first went to Taiwan in 2011. As I sat down with some new friends over a plate of fresh bok choy, we looked out the window at the view of the mountains, where vegetables were neatly arranged on the hillside. This is just the beginning of a lifelong love for one of Taiwan’s natural treasures.

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