Jessie Chien explores what her neighborhood Chinese Market has to offer, and finds a new favorite in the lesser-known Chrysanthemum Green.
By Jessie Chien
There’s a lot of things I won’t bring home from Chinese markets- meat that I don’t know how to cook, weird crustaceans with a few too many legs for me to count, fermented soy blocks floating in seemingly opalescent brine. Even growing up and eating pigs feet, shrimp heads, and fermented goodies, I figure I’m better off eating such delicacies at restaurants rather than tackling the ingredients in my own kitchen.
But when it comes to the produce aisles of Chinese markets, my prejudices disappear and it’s no holds barred. I’m an ambitious vegetable purchaser, which works well to satiate my curious (and vigorous) omnivorous diet. Regardless of where my travels take me, I’m always game to try the smelliest fruits and the most foreign-looking vegetables without much hesitation.
Living in China has forced me to explore my vegetable options, much to my delight. I’ve gone far past the daikon and watercress and bean sprouts that I’ve seen at every Whole Foods Market in the States. Here in China, there are also rows of celtuce, lotus root, tiny spicy peppers, hollow-heart greens, baby ginger, seven varieties of scallions from each vendor, and many vegetables that I can’t even name. And then, of course, there is the Chrysanthemum Green.
As the name suggests, the green comes from the same family as the flower of the tea of the same name. I have always loved chrysanthemum flower tea, and finding out that a green was edible from the same family truly excited me. Like, finding out I could eat zucchini flowers for the first time, or those delicate hibiscus petals in my drink were (gasp) edible!
A staple in many Asian homes, the Chrysanthemum Green hasn’t traveled very far West yet, although it has been making a slow but steady incline in the London area vegetable market due to an expanding Vietnamese community. The Chrysanthemum Green goes by many other names, including Tong Hao or Tung Ho (depending where you are in China), Shingiku (in Japanese), Tan O (Vietnamese), Chop Suey Greens, Edible Chrysanthemum, and more. It’s a flat leaf green with a long and slightly fibrous stem, and much like a tamer dandelion in shape and color. The leaf grows in slightly cooler climates, similar to other Chinese greens is harvested young, for the leaves become more pungent and bitter as the plant ages.
The greens are often thrown into Chinese hot pots or stews, medicinal soups, and sometimes used in various stir frys. When I asked my ‘greens lady’ at the market how to cook these ordinary-looking greens, she advised me to create a simple sauté with some garlic- stems, leaves, and all. I have branched out past Chinese cuisine, however, and found they are just as delightful in various other preparations. The greens can also be used, raw, in hearty winter salads, much like kale or dandelion or other sturdier salad greens, or slightly wilted with a warm vinaigrette and toasted walnuts on top. I imagine with fall fruits abundant, persimmons and plums would pair exceptionally well with the grassier flavor of the greens. (Don’t be alarmed, though, its grassy flavor is herbal without being as pungent as the shiso leaf.)
These days, I’ve been bringing a handful of Chrysanthemum Greens home from every trip to the market. A quick sauté with a generous squeeze of roasted lemon, much like how I prepare my spinach, has made its appearance alongside servings of fish or chicken on many a night. Most recently I’ve been discarding the stems and using just the leaves in quinoa and lentil dishes. The green begs for wonderfully earthy complements like legumes and barleys, chanterelles, fatty sausages or lardon, preserved lemons, shallots, onions, and garlic, and any nuts- pinenuts, as I’m imagining just now. I can’t stop thinking of the possibilities, and guarantee that you won’t either once you dare to bring home this under-appreciated vegetable.
Originally Published: November 3, 2011