I have been a vegetarian for such a long time that, if this lifestyle choice were a person, it would be old enough to drive, vote, and drink alcohol in my home country. You would think then that moving to China, with its incredible variety of vegetables, would have been an ideal opportunity to expand my palate (and my family’s). Instead, I was intimidated.
Eight years ago, we were living in Shenzhen. In the grocery store, I would examine all the strange produce and wonder what I could possibly do with any of it. I had no ayi to cook for us, and my Chinese friends were too busy with their own jobs and families to instruct me in the basics of cooking these new foods. I stared at the fresh vegetables – the bitter melon, the luobo (radish), and all the variations of bocai (spinach) – and ended up reaching for the familiar but significantly less attractive broccoli.
Had I known the Chinese word for broccoli at the time (xi lanhua) and its translation (“western blue flower”), I would have skipped it too. Back home in the US, broccoli was strongly associated with Chinese restaurants. But as I learned later, it was about as Chinese as I was. Its relatively high price and frequently wilted condition at the supermarket should have served as a clue to the popularity of this veggie in our new environment.
When it came to cooking for my family, I thought I was better off preparing foods I knew with less-than-optimal ingredients rather than failing with beautiful-yet-misunderstood vegetables. I did not want to turn my kids off luobo because I insisted on treating it like parsnip or bocai because I really wanted it to be escarole. On the plus side, we have no amusing bitter melon disaster story. Needless to say, we ate out frequently during our time in Shenzhen.
These problems followed me to Beijing a few years later. I dearly wanted to follow a more locavore diet, but I was once again at a loss about how to take advantage of the city’s seasonal produce. It was around then that a cookbook unlike any other came into our lives: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
My cookbook collection up to that point had reflected my years as a vegetarian. I had the almost complete canon of Moosewood Cookbooks, a definitive American anthology for the meat-free set. These were great resources, provided I already knew what I wanted to make and with what vegetables.
With How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, I could start with the ingredient and search for a recipe that made use of it. Suddenly, I was excited to cook with the vegetables I had previously feared and – more importantly – my kids were eating them.
It turned out I was right not to treat a luobo as a parsnip; Bittman had plenty of Asian-inspired recipes that made more effective use of this giant white radish. And while bocai was still not escarole, a few recipes suggested using it as an appropriate substitute for my favorite Italian vegetable. Beyond vegetables, I found ways to use Beijing’s incredible autumn fruit harvest without resorting only to desserts. How to Cook Everything Vegetarian introduced us to the savory possibilities of apples and kidney beans, and an herbed peach gratin that has become a fall family tradition. We eat less broccoli than before, but we don’t even miss it. Sesame luobo soup, anyone?
Illustration by Sunzheng
This article originally appeared on p49 of the beijingkids March 2014 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com