Ian’s Table: Weird but wonderful

Tatsoi is equally at home in an arugula and nut salad as it is in Shanghainese vegetable rice, and this level of versatility makes it a real performer in the kitchen

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Sat, Mar 03, 2018 - Page 13

Back in 2014, the Chinese-language Apple Daily ran a piece titled “9 weird vegetables in Taiwan that you have never eaten.” As this column makes a return after a prolonged siesta for the Lunar New Year, it is good to rejoice in the fact that some of these vegetables have been covered, as well as many others that are on the fringes of Taiwan’s culinary culture.

Most remain difficult to obtain, though it is good to note that some are gaining a presence in Farmers Association Supermarkets and other establishments that seek to procure and purvey vegetables and other produce that are relatively free of toxic chemical residue. Many of these non-mainstream vegetables are actually better adapted to local conditions, and are good substitutes for better known varieties, providing a cleaner and more often than not, cheaper, alternative.

My own favorite example is the robust sweet potato leaf, covered at the very inception of this column, as the perfect summertime substitute for spinach in a wide variety (though certainly not all) applications. Winter offers a cold weather alternative as well, in the instance of tatsoi, a vegetable remarkable for its ability to survive through chilly winter weather. It looks pretty on the plate and has an outstanding flavor, which I would suggest is in many applications actually superior to the ubiquitous bok choy, of which it is a relative.

Tatsoi is a member of the brassica family and is particularly notable for its ability to grow in hard winters, able to withstand temperatures reaching down to -10c, so that it can be harvested even on snow clad ground. This obviously is not a major feature of its appeal in Taiwan, where winter is perfect for many mainstream vegetables to be grown with a minimum of human interference, but its appearance on the scene is still welcome due to its unique and charming personality.

As with many non-mainstream vegetables, tatsoi doesn’t do very well in the marketing department, with its Chinese, in Mandarin takecai (塌棵菜), meaning a vegetable plant that has collapsed. This is a less-than-complimentary reference to the fact that it grows close to the ground, spreading out like a rosette. It has long thin stems and rounded leaves and in English is sometimes referred to as spoon mustard, but with a variety of other names that include spinach mustard, broad beak mustard or rosette bok choy.

With a name that references both spinach and bok choy (青江菜), it is not surprising that it can be substituted for both in a wide variety of applications.

Its flavor and textural profile is probably closer to bok choy than to spinach, though its leaves are a little fleshier and its flavor more muted, so that it can be tossed into a green leaf salad in the way you might use baby spinach. It doesn’t need much cooking, and is perfectly delicious slightly wilted with a bit of garlic, or throw it in at the end to finish a simple stir fry.

Unsurprisingly, tatsoi is packed with nutrients, providing a good source of Vitamin C, is rich in calcium and shares many other good qualities with related cruciferous vegetables, possessing all kinds of outstanding anti-oxidant qualities. More surprisingly, it is also a good source of carotenoids, more often associated with orange colored vegetables such as carrots.

Health experts disagree on many things but they mostly agree that rotating your intake of food is generally a good thing. Tatsoi does not bring anything hugely remarkable to the dining table, but for all that it is worth trying out if you come across it. It is pretty to look at, and the fact that it is primarily cultivated on a relatively small scale for sale in farmers markets (to preserve its attractive appearance it needs to be hand harvested) means that it is less likely to be thoroughly impregnated with harmful agricultural chemicals.

Simple Vegetable Rice with Tatsoi

Recipe

(Serves 4)

Vegetable rice is most famously associated with Shanghainese cuisine but its utility as a quick meal has made it such a family favorite that variations abound to such an extent that it is almost impossible to say exactly what is the authentic version. Not having eaten vegetable rice in Shanghai, my only experience of this dish is in Taiwan, and there are a number of establishments that purport to offer the real deal. My own problem with this classic is that I have invariably found it often appears as a damp mass in which neither the rice nor the vegetables are able to shine. Preparing it at home, I am able to adjust for this, cooking a drier firmer rice. Additionally, by using tatsoi, which is equally tasty raw or cooked, I am able to simply wilt the veg in the hot rice, preserving its fresh flavor. As for the meat, tradition dictates the use of Jinhua ham (金華火腿), a specialty of China’s Zhejiang Province, but my own preference is for cured pork belly. When using preserved meats, always ensure to use a high quality product, as some cheaper products are inclined to go over the top with preservatives and stabilizers. Artisanal products from brands such as Gui Lai Biao (桂來標), which operates out of Taipei’s Neihu District (內湖), is one that I personally use, but I am sure there are other excellent brands. Chinese sausage, particularly a type flavored with Chinese rose wine (玫瑰露酒), can be used to produce an even more fragrant version of this dish.

Ingredients

2 cups white rice (short grain)

2 cups chicken stock (vegetable stock or water)

100g cured pork belly

1 clove of garlic

4 stems spring onion

2 dried Chinese mushrooms

200g tatsoi

Directions

1. Place the 100g piece of cured pork belly in a pot of boiling water and cook for 5 minutes.

2. Set aside and allow to cool.

3. Mince the garlic and chop the spring onions.

4. Soak the Chinese mushrooms in boiling water until soft, remove the stem and finely dice the flesh, squeezing out excess liquid.

5. Wash the tatsoi thoroughly and then chop roughly.

6. Finely slice the cooled pork belly.

7. Add a little neutral cooking oil to a pan and gently fry the garlic and pork belly over low heat until fragrant. Add the mushrooms and spring onions and mix, cooking for a further two minutes.

8. Wash the rice thoroughly then add the stock (or water) and the fried ingredients. Mix well and cook until the rice is done. Using a rice cooker is safest, but cooking in a pot works just as well. When the rice is done, add the tatsoi leaves and mix well. There will seem to be vastly too much of the greens but do not worry, they will cook down.

9. Cover and allow residual heat to cook the vegetables, or add a little water and cook for a couple of minutes if you want the vegetables cooked through. Serve warm.

Ian Bartholomew runs Ian’s Table, a small guesthouse in Hualien. He has lived in Taiwan for many years writing about the food scene and has decided that until you look at farming, you know nothing about the food you eat. He can be contacted at Hualien202@gmail.com.