We’re now halfway through January, and while my post-Christmas eating is going fairly well, I decided I could definitely use more greens. And do you know where you’ll find plenty of those? Any Asian supermarket or grocery store. The problem is, if you’re like me and didn’t grow up with some of these vegetables, it can be a little intimidating to decide what to buy. So, here are some tips from my friend Stacey, who led me around 2000 Supermarket in Union Square on Capstan and showed me the ropes.
A warning before we get started – it’s a long and boring story, but I had some photo issues with this post. Most were on my phone (which I used instead of my camera, since grocery stores don’t usually welcome those), but not all of them made it to my inbox. Poor delicious food photos, lost in the universe somewhere! Anyway, I’m missing a few, but have managed to fill them in one way or another. My apologies for the less than stunning visuals, but let’s get onto the greens, shall we?
Stores like this carry dozens of varieties of leafy greens – often many varieties of one kind. They can be simply steamed and topped with a soy-based sauce, stir-fried directly in a pan, or chopped up and used in soups, dumplings, and other dishes. My advice, if you’re new to this also, is to buy a bag of greens that looks (and smells) appealing to you, then take note of the name and look up the name on the interwebs. There are plenty of fresh, simple recipes available online that can inform you on the best ways to prepare them.
One of the first (and best tips) Stacey gave me was a simple one: the word choy (as in bok choy or suey choy) simply means vegetable. So, anytime you see anything with choy added to the end of it, it’ll be full of vitamins, potassium, calcium, iron, and fibre. Choy = good for you. Here are some of many greens (and other veg) Stacey showed me:
This is also known as ‘water spinach’ or ‘Chinese spinach, because it grows easily near waterways. It can be identified by its hollow stems, and is commonly stir fried.
“A” Choy (Taiwanese lettuce):
This popular green, native to Taiwan, is easy to grow, and can be harvested at any stage. It’s eaten cooked, however, not raw like many lettuces native to North America.
This vegetable is the perfect example of diversity within one variety. Yellow chives are a milder and sweeter version of mature green chives. They’re also more expensive – here are some of their uses.
When Stacey picked up a bundle of the more garlicky-smelling green chives, she told me there’s an ‘unwritten rule amongst school kids in Asia’ that if your mom made chive dumplings for dinner last night, you do NOT bring them in your lunch the next day. Why? Because most kids bring their lunches in little metal containers, which each classroom packs into a box and take to a communal ‘steam room’ at lunch. The room fills with steam and reheats everyone’s noontime meals, drawing out each and every aroma from the lunch tins. Apparently, reheated green Chinese chives STINK! It’s so monumental, in fact, it takes over the entire steam room, and the chive dumpling-bearing culprits are singled out by their fellow students. I thought that was hilarious, and certainly something I – a North American child who ate traditional, cold sandwich/apple lunches – could not relate to. So be warned people, if you’re having guests over or trying to impress a date, do not feature Chinese green chives in your meal.
Stacey said these peppery-tasting greens are often used in hot pot (which I’m trying tonight!), but she’s used to seeing varieties that are fully green. She was less familiar with the kind in 2000 Supermarket, which were vibrantly magenta at their center. They’re quite beautiful, even when it’s a photo of a photo on a phone!
We spent a long time looking at other things in the fresh produce section, many of which I’ve eaten before, but had only seen in certain forms. Take lotus root, for example, which I’ve had sliced into the rounds that reveal their hole-y centres, but haven’t seen whole. They look like links of fat sausages, and I’d never have been able to identify them had I not seen a cross-section.
There were a few other root vegetables I was completely unaware of, like the ‘common yam rhizome,’ a relatively thin white root with many medicinal properties. One website described it as “the swollen rhizome of a yam plant native to China that is also grown in Korea and Japan. The rhizome functions as a storage organ to hold nutrients for the plant.” It can be prepared from fresh or dried, and is commonly used in soup.
The store also sells small and large taro roots, some of which have been peeled and cut into chunks to save customers time preparing them. The inside of a fresh taro root is white, with threads of purple speckled throughout.
This is just a small, small sampling of the huge produce section at 2000 Supermarket – if you love exploring ‘new’ supermarkets as much as I do, I encourage you to check it out. Your brain will thank you for the intellectual stimulation, and your body will thank you for all the good green nutrition you’re putting into it.
An added bonus of our visit? I didn’t just learn about food while there – Stacey also showed me the section of the store that sells gold, money, and incense for burning at home and in the temple for the deceased. According to Chinese tradition, it is believed that when a person passes, they must be provided for in the afterlife; the way to achieve this is through the burning of items necessary for the ‘other side.’ Because no one wishes to burn real money or gold, you can buy imitations!
After our tour around the store, Stacey and I went next door and had lunch at Liu’s Taiwanese. It’s a small, friendly restaurant with a layout that reminded me of Hanppy Tofu Pot House and New Asia Deli.
We had a steamed plate of ong choy, which was topped with a spicy ground pork sauce. I loved this dish – it was packed full of flavour, but felt healthy at the same time.
Besides the greens, we ordered combo meals, which provide a ton of food for very little money. I had combo J-18 ($10.50) with pork and fish paste in soup, Taiwanese style steamed sticky rice, and stewed bamboo shoots. Stacey had combo J-19 ($14.50) with noodles and minced pork sauce in soup, an oyster pancake, and deep-fried tofu.
My favourite thing on the table was the small bowl of Taiwanese-style sticky rice, which had been packed into a cup with pork and mushrooms at the top, then unmolded into a bowl filled with a sweet, mild chili sauce. I LOVED the chewy texture of sticky rice, especially when combined with such sweet and savoury flavours.
My soup had a thick, clear broth, julienned vegetables, a spoonful of strong satay sauce at its center which I stirred in, and chunks of pork mixed with fish paste. I’ve never tried these before, but they’re sort of like boiled meatballs, and I didn’t find the fish flavour to be all that prevalent. They were tasty. Here’s a website that describes the process for preparing and cooking them.
The stewed bamboo shoots were pale yellowy-gray, very tender, and like the ong choy, came topped with pork.
Stacey’s noodle soup not only had minced pork sauce, but also a dollop of fine garlic paste resting on top which, once stirred in, apparently “makes the dish.” Her main course was an oyster pancake/omelette-like concoction, which is a classic Taiwanese dish that utilizes tapioca starch instead of flour to bind the oysters together. It came swimming in the same sweet sauce as my sticky rice, and was topped with a fried egg. It looked very similar to this:
The texture of the tapioca starch threw me a little. It was clear, sort of gelatinous, and I couldn’t quite adjust to the egg + oyster + chewy combo. I liked the flavours, however, and think I just need to eat it a few more times to break myself in.
To drink, Stacey (who knows I don’t like sweet drinks) suggested I try an Apple Sider, which is like a dry apple soda. It was quite good, and I loved the design on the can – very old-school.
Liu’s is a great place to go for classic Taiwanese food, though it helps to have someone who knows Taiwanese food with you! If you’re not quite ready to venture into pork/fish paste or oyster pancake territory, try the fried chicken instead. Can’t go wrong there.
Do you have any tips/advice for cooking any of the vegetables I discussed in this post? If so, I’d love to hear them! Have a great, green vegetable-filled day.
A few vegetarian options available, but the menu is meat-heavy