I continually have wanderlust – travelling to foreign lands, collecting new experiences, cooking my food for others, and trying different cuisines thrills me beyond any material possession. On the rare occasions I have nostalgia for home, it is usually because I miss eating vegetables from my garden.
Numerous travellers I meet have said the same thing: the one thing they miss from their daily routine is eating vegetables, namely green, leafy vegetables. Funny how a green leaf can tether you to home.
So my first meal upon arriving home always includes loads of Chinese broccoli, as that’s what I have growing in my garden all year round. Funny name, “Chinese broccoli”. I’m not sure how it came to be known as “Chinese” – probably because it is thought to have originated in China, although in many Chinese dialects its literal translation is “mustard orchid”. I often wonder how is it that plants, people, things get assigned or claim national allegiances.
Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra is commonly found throughout Asian cooking: it is the kale of the east, if such a thing can be claimed. Depending on the variety (we have more than six kinds growing on our farm) they range in scale and colour, from hand-sized blueish-green leaves down to petite, bright apple-green dwarf varieties. The stalks of the outer crown can be slightly woody, but pared away they reveal a tender, crunchy, succulent stem that is mostly eaten stir-fried or steamed.
Besides spring onions, it’s usually the only green thing you’ll see at yum cha, quickly parboiled and then doused with a blanket of oyster sauce. It makes a lovely respite from all the sodium-laden protein and starch which makes you beg for the strongest tannin teas.
The point at which I like to pick them – done by harvesting from the third node or so down the plant – is when their small cluster of flowers begins to open. A day later the whole cluster will bloom, and while that is fine to eat too, some find it becomes a little bitter.
A little bitterness doesn’t hurt though. It signals the presence of isothiocyanates, which have anti-carcinogenic properties. Chinese broccoli is also high in carotenoids, folate and vitamins A and C. Kale isn’t the only super food in this family.
A fellow traveller who has been crisscrossing the globe cooking up a Thai storm is Andy Ricker. He’s written some James Beard award-winning cookbooks on Thai food, and is behind the Pok Pok restaurants in Portland, Oregon. Recently we discussed how Thai food is the perfect example of “plant-based” eating, where meat and animal fats were a small portion of the meal, usually used sparingly and creatively: fermented, cured, or dried. When we talked about padt siew, everyone at the table instantly salivated.
If you don’t know already, this is the dish that every child (and adult) orders at Thai restaurants from Portland to Sydney and Bangkok.
Start with some rendered pork fat and a few bits of pork, char some crushed garlic, throw in some fresh, chewy, hand-cut rice noodles, and more tender Chinese broccoli than it seems possible for your wok to hold, season with sweet dark soy, a splash of fish sauce, a tad bit of sugar is optional but a dusting of pepper is a must. Toss, char, toss and char until the greens are wilted and the noodles take on the smokiness from the wok. Serve with long red chillies pickled in vinegar.
I arrived home the other day from being on the road for more than two months. I went into my garden to harvest veggies, and I promptly made a stir-fry of Chinese broccoli and anchovy. Then I was really home.
Stir-fried Chinese broccoli with anchovies (Padt Kha Naa pla kehm)
7 stems of Chinese broccoli, woody parts pared back and sliced into 8cm diagonal pieces
5 cloves of fresh local garlic smacked with the butt of a cleaver
2 long red chillies sliced lengthwise on a diagonal
4 pieces of anchovy or a finger of salted mackerel, chopped roughly
2tbs rendered pastured pork fat
1.5tbs Braggs liquid aminos or soy sauce
1tbs rice vinegar
1tbs salted black turtle beans (found in Asian grocers – ask for Dau-si)
In a very hot wok set over the highest heat element, add pork fat, garlic and black beans toss until golden. Add anchovies and chilli, toss a few times until the anchovies are a little broken down then add the Chinese broccoli, then all the sauces. Toss until the leaves are coated with the sauce and then put a lid on the wok and let it wilt for a minute.
Serve and eat immediately!