Of Greens and Beans

Posted on June 26, 2014 in Archives

Chengdu, China: June 26, 2014

Beans and greens, as I have written many times before, are among the hardest food plants to write about, if only because the plant families and genera are so large and diverse; common names add to the confusion. The cowpeas of the southern United States are so varied, even today, that a favorite heirloom might be restricted to one farm in one county. Fava beans are so widely cultivated – and so different upon harvest — that even the experts in the same regions cannot agree on how best to cook them.  Elizabeth Schneider, my dear friend and go-to expert on the culinary uses of fruits and vegetables, has written, “The common bean of commerce, the native American Phaseolus vulgaris, is not just a bean but a world of beans, embracing almost everything we call ‘bean’ – from yellow wax to black turtle, from green (snap or string bean) to dried. The remarkable scope and multiple forms of this New World bean have made it among the most difficult plants to classify in either scientific or common terms.” The aforementioned cowpeas, also known as southernpeas (including blackeyes, cream peas, whippoorwills, lady peas, and crowders), are of African origin and do not belong to the same genus. They are Vigna unguiculata, another vast array of beans. Fava beans, also known as broad beans or Windsor or English beans, are Old World, but they’ve been cultivated for so long (from China to England), that its origins are no longer traceable. They’re in an entirely different plant family.

And then there are the leafy green vegetables, of which I am besotted. In Bulgaria, it drove me crazy that the fields were filled with mustard, beets, and turnips, the former grown for its seeds, and the latter, for their roots. Cabbage and spinach were common and an occasional wild green appeared at market, but I longed for the collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, and kale that I ate regularly in the States, and various wild greens that found their way to my table in Italy. Of Brassica, the sprawling Mustard genus of leafy greens also known as the Crucifers, Elizabeth quotes Paul Williams, head of the Crucifer Genetics Cooperative at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, “Once you decide to put anything on paper about Brassica, you’re leaving footprints in the snow for all to see and step on. Scientists and produce marketers and seed companies function – if you can call it that – independently when it comes to Brassica names.” What you call “bok choy” may be someone else’s “choy sum.” Here in Western China, the Sichuanhua and Uighur words differ not only from Cantonese, but from Mandarin as well. In her seminal Food Plants of China, Shiu-ying Hu notes, “Several popular Chinese vegetables called bai-cai are not included [in her essay on leafy shoots] because they are not available in most supermarkets. In North China bai-cai (Brassica pekinensis [Lour.] Rruprecht) is well cooked, pickled, or raw for salad. The South China bai-cai (Brassica chinensis L.) is used in American Chinese restaurants, both with meat or in soups.” She, too, admits, “Their taxonomic status is confusing.” Under Brassica alboglabra (Chinese kale or Chinese broccoli), she lists eleven varieties. Under Brassica juncea (Mustard greens, leaf-mustard, Swatow mustard, or Indian Mustard), she lists four major varieties plus zha-cai (Sichuan Pressed Vegetable), a variety grown specifically to be preserved in a complicated process of salting, seasoning, and pressing. “A town called Fuling in Sichuan is the center of production of this preserve which has worldwide circulation, hence the name.” [An aside:  I’ve not found collards, mustard, or beet greens, and salad greens are next to impossible to find. But there IS a world of leafy green vegetables here and I love them all.]

A cell phone image of fresh fava beans with preserved mustard greens and Chinese cabbage with chick peas

All this as a background to dinner the other night in a duck restaurant not far from our apartment. Imagine my delight (though I knew writing about it would be hell) when these dishes arrived at table (see the cell phone photo, above): fresh young fava beans with preserved mustard and cabbage cooked with chickpeas. I was dining with my friend Loubna, who is Syrian and who, I discovered several days after our meal, didn’t even realize the beans were favas! (She had recently brought a cumin-scented fava dish to my house for a Middle Eastern meal I prepared.) She’s one of those folks who has never peeled a fava bean. (See my blog on this eternal argument here.) She thought they were another type of fresh bean that she did not know. Most surprising to me were the mustard greens. Though I have seen innumerable packages of pickled “cai” in grocers throughout Chengdu, and have been served several pickled condiments (most notably, pickled yard long beans, which are a type of cowpea!), never before have I had anything quite like these mustard pickles. They tasted just like wasabi. Xiaoyu, our Chinese friend dining with us, said that this particular pickle is peculiar to the region and is only available for a brief time in spring and summer while the supply lasts; it’s made from tender young shoots. Shiu-ying writes that “the finished product is olive green and very spicy.” Definitely “spicy,” but the color was a dark green. It looked fresh, not preserved. It was brilliant with the nuttiness of the fresh favas. Interestingly Shiu-ying’s 900-page tome does not mention the use of favas as a fresh vegetable.

I found both hers and Fuchsia Dunlop’s essays on the various mustard pickles not only confusing, but totally worthless as shopping guides. I will never understand why publishers don’t put the tone marks on the Pinyin, the romanized alphabet of Chinese; without them, there’s no way to know how they’re pronounced.  “Bái cài,” for example, which literally means “white vegetable,” is Chinese cabbage. But “bǎi cái” means “a hundred talents.” There are only 400 syllables in the Chinese language. Context helps, of course, but without the proper tone, you can be totally misunderstood. And it’s not just foreigners who have a hard time. Because the beans and greens, as in English, are called x beans and y greens, even the locals are misunderstood. I’ve had friends order cauliflower and get cabbage. Broccoli (huā cài, or flower vegetable) and cauliflower (cài huā, or vegetable flower) are particularly confusing to me, especially since neither of them are called that here in Chengdu. And guess what? They’re BOTH Brassica oleracea var. botrytis L.!

I’ve never had a dish quite like the bái cài yīng zuǐ dòu (Chinese cabbage with chick peas, or, literally, “white vegetable eagle beak bean”).  I was so surprised by it that I never thought to ask how it was made, but I’m all but certainly the beans were cooked in a duck broth (we were in a duck restaurant, after all) and the cabbage added toward the end of cooking. I have never seen chick peas for sale here and Shiu-ying says they are rare in China. I’ll keep you posted.