It used to be that in North America, Asian vegetables were only to be found as ingredients in dishes served in Asian restaurants. But as our taste buds became more cosmopolitan, these delicious and succulent veggies found their way into western supermarkets and are now readily available in seed form for the home gardener.
The rise in popularity of growing Asian vegetables at home offers us an even broader range of tastes and textures that we can bring to our dinner table. The following are just a few of the healthful Asian vegetables that you just might want to try in your garden this year.
1. Bitter Melon
Also known as bitter cucumber, bitter gourd or balsam pear, this long green melon bears a resemblance to a very wrinkled and gnarly cucumber. Like the name suggests, it has a bitter flavor which not everyone will appreciate – but it does have some pretty sweet health benefits.
It is rich in several phyto-nutrients – notably polypeptide-P which has been shown to lower blood sugar as well as a hypoglycemic agent called charatin so it should not be used if you are taking drugs that treat hypoglycemia. It contains 140 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C in a 100 gram serving and it is also a good source of vitamin A, lutein and zea-xantin. It has twice the potassium of bananas and twice the calcium of spinach.
If you decide to plant this nutritional powerhouse in your own garden, you’ll need to find a spot that receives at least six hours of sunlight. This plant loves heat and humidity and thrives best when the soil is well-drained and contains a good amount of compost. Trellis the vines for best results.
2. Bok Choy
This variety of cabbage, also known as pak choi, is popular in Asian vegetable stir-fries and contains good to excellent amounts of 21 different nutrients and unlike most of its cousins in the cabbage family includes healthy amounts of omega-3s and zinc.
It has a mild flavor and virtually all parts of the plant can be used without noticeably changes in flavor or texture.
Bok Choy is a cool weather crop so you’ll be able to grow it in the spring or fall. While it may be sown directly, it is recommended to start it indoors before the last frost and transplanted two weeks later into rich, loose soil. Other than keeping your soil well-fertilized, and your garden weeded, it is not an overly temperamental plant, so it is a great choice for even the beginner gardener.
3. Asian Eggplant
A more delicate take on its counterpart, the globe eggplant, Asian eggplants are smaller and thinner with thinner skins, less seeds (which means less bitter), and have a milder flavor. Because of this they make a good introduction to eggplants for kids (or adults) who are hesitant to try new foods.
Like other types of eggplant, the Asian varieties contains important phytonutrients such as nasunin which has been shown, in animal studies, to protect lipids in brain cell membranes.
There are several varieties of Asian eggplants to choose from for your garden including the extra early long and slender “Ichiban” and “Kermit” which small round and has green and white stripes.
These are heat loving plants, so if you live in a cooler climate you’ll want to make sure that you give them a good start indoors.
4. Daikon Radish
Shaped almost like a fat, white carrot, the daikon radish is an important ingredient in Japanese cuisine. These root vegetables are giants in the radish family. In fact, a daikon can grow to be over a foot long!
It is extremely versatile and can be consumed in many different ways including pickled, dried, roasted and raw – and it is commonly found in sushi.
Daikon is a good source of vitamin C, phosphorus and potassium. In Chinese medicine, it is said to aid in kidney function and relief of migraines.
Like other radishes, daikons are easy to grow and do best in cooler weather when planted in loose, well fertilized soil. But unlike most of their cousins, they are not quick growers – they can take 60-70 days to mature. Because of this, it is better to plant them as a fall crop in late summer so that they can take advantage of the cooler weather. They do best in temperatures under 80 degrees F.
5. Malabar Spinach
The name of this leafy plant is a bit misleading as it is only very distantly related to spinach. The flavor of its thick and juicy leaves have a more peppery and citrusy taste when raw – but taste more like spinach when cooked.
This plant is another powerhouse of nutrition being extremely rich in the antioxidants beta-carotene, lutein and zea-xanthin. The leaves and stem contain 276 percent of the daily recommended value of vitamin A and the plant contains more vitamin C than English spinach.
Unlike English spinach, lettuce and other leaf vegetables, Malabar spinach thrives in hot weather over 90 degrees F.
If you’re going to grow it however, be aware that it can be quite invasive and it’s a smart idea to contain it. It’s also a vining plant and will do best when you give it something to climb.
So as you plan your garden for this year, think about trying one or more of these delicious Asian vegetables. Not only are they packed with nutrients, but they’ll give you a chance to try some wonderful new flavors.
What are your favorite Asian vegetables to grow? Share your tips on growing them in the section below: