“I think most gardeners could tell a life story based on their changing gardens.” —Wendy Kiang-Spray
In The Chinese Kitchen Garden: Growing Techniques and Family Recipes from a Classic Cuisine you write, “While I personally have work to do in tracing my history back beyond the fuzzy tales I’ve learned about my grandparents, I know that simple chores in my garden or weekend dinners with my parents are all made up of their cumulative experiences, at the same time tumultuous and wonderful. To make sense of my own story, I had to know my parents’ stories.” Why did writing about gardening and cooking serve as such a great access point for learning about your family?
Growing up, my sister and I would eavesdrop on adults in our family telling hushed tales of the harsh life my father lived in China. On the rare occasion, one of us would be brave enough to ask about some of the details—about the village, or maybe about our grandmother, who died before we were born. We never got the details we longed for. As a self-made man, a true American success story, my father believed the details from those difficult long-ago days were better left untold. They were simply too hard for a stoic, proud man to tell.
I remember one summer day, when I had already been tending my own garden for several years, my father and I quietly sat on stools on his driveway, doing some laborious chore such as cutting the hearts out of bamboo shoots. I decided to break the silence by asking him if he had any tips about a particular vegetable I was planning to grow. He gave me some advice on how to grow the vegetable, but then he began telling me a story about the unique ways he used to grow and store his harvests in China. Finally, I was learning details about the past and gaining a true picture about life in China—albeit about the garden at first. I began to rely on this trick to learn more about his past.
Later, when I decided to write a book about Chinese vegetables, I found opportunities to directly ask about my grandmother. Some days the conversation ended right there. Other days, I learned about her noble and educated family, her tenacious personality, and her skill with working with her hands. Through innocuous conversations about vegetables, I was gaining so much knowledge about a time that would be too difficult to talk about outright.
Gardening and cooking go hand in hand. After preparing the bamboo shoots, we pass them along to my mother, who is a superb home cook. While she has a binder of Betty Crocker-type recipes she collected when we were young, she and my father are intuitive cooks. On many occasions, my husband, a sentimental historian, would say, “You better record your mom’s recipes.” While compiling the recipes for The Chinese Kitchen Garden, my mom made it really hard. I would tell her that Timber Press needs exact measurements—and she would yell, “Maybe one teaspoon, maybe two. Whatever you want!” On one occasion, she was cooking a dish she had already given me the recipe for, and I watched in shock as she changed a couple of the ingredients. In her usual style, she told me that sometimes she uses X sauce, sometimes she uses Y sauce: “Whatever you want!” Learning her tricks has been interesting as well. When I asked her how long she cooks the gai lan, she said, “No how long!” Instead, she presses her thumbnail into the stem. If it’s soft, it’s done.
As I get older and as my children get older, it has become increasingly important to us to learn all we can about growing and cooking these vegetables. I think readers will learn a lot about how to grow and cook a wide range of vegetables but I think they will also see how much of my family’s story—from the tough early days to the plentiful, foodie days—is infused in the book as well.
In addition to vegetable profiles, lush recipes, and that beautiful infusion of family history, your book covers garden topics such as improving the soil, container gardening, making your own compost, seed saving, watering a summer garden, food preservation, and winterizing. Which garden skill has taken you the longest to master?
There is enough general information about gardening in my book that a novice gardener could pick it up and get a great start. Gardening is a truly addictive activity, and when I started, I tried to suck up as much knowledge as possible. That’s the easy part. It’s nearly impossible to “master” gardening, because there are factors you can’t control—like insect and animal pests! It can take months of care to produce tomatoes. Energy is spent nurturing a tomato seed in a pot on a windowsill for weeks, preparing the garden after the snow melts, waiting for the soil to warm, cultivating the plant outdoors, enjoying the little yellow flowers, only to suddenly find that a hornworm has decimated the entire plant overnight!
My father is an extremely successful gardener. This year, after a lifetime of growing food and solving various problems, voles made their way into his garden. Even the most experienced of us get surprised. As much as I am a person who likes to have a system in place to create routines, gardeners have to grow. New products come out. People share great ideas with each other. Voles move in. Droughts happen. And in my area, every seventeen years, BroodX cicadas come out, and I am not outdoors during that time! My point is, I take careful notes in an effort to remember what worked well and what didn’t. Still, forces beyond our control make an impact. Most successful gardeners are always learning, and they constantly adapt their practices when they need to. New challenges always arise. I think our response to these problems show the resilience and determination of gardeners. We have problems of some sort every year, but never give up. And come spring, we’re right back at it.
In the 1960s, your father made his way from rural China to Hong Kong, and eventually to the suburbs of the United States, making his first garden with an American spade. Has your father spoken about pressure to assimilate to American gardening standards?
I remember my father and his friends talking about growing Chinese vegetables and sharing seeds. He has always grown both Chinese and Western vegetables—even in China. I do have childhood memories of our first garden though, which is probably more a testament to the time period and growing practices in America. The gardening trends were definitely different from the farming practices he knew in China—I remember my father standing with the hose, watering the modest-sized garden for long periods of time each evening, or walking around with fertilizer and pesticide sprays. The smell of Japanese beetle traps is strong and wonderful in my mind. Today, his enormous garden is organic and more reminiscent of a traditional Chinese landscape. His property even looks like a centuries-old painting, with weeping willows and peonies. In the garden, the watering is done by hand with water drawn from his six-acre pond. There are no fertilizers in sight, and pests are generally prevented by understanding the insects’ life cycles and using keen observation to squash a problem before it gets out of control. It has been interesting to see how his gardens have changed over the years. I think most gardeners could tell a life story based on their changing gardens.
What’s it like to have your work published during a time in book publishing when readers are clamoring for more diverse voices?
I’m so excited to be publishing this book at this time. I’m finding that gardeners have tried bok choy and maybe a couple other Asian vegetables, but there is a vast amount they have yet to know, and I’m happy to share my knowledge with the world. Dining options are also becoming more diverse. The Latin rum bar near me serves its guacamole with taro chips instead of tortilla chips. Vietnamese bánh mì shops and food trucks are popping up everywhere, and people love the pickled daikon radish that adds tang to the sandwiches. I’m really excited about the garden-to-table element of my book. The “In the Kitchen” sections give a good description of the taste of each vegetable, how it’s traditionally used, and also how it can be used in everyday kitchens. I hope it will be a springboard for people who want to experiment. I also think the family stories, short cultural notes, and other tidbits will interest readers who want to learn more about Chinese culture as well.
You are part of the first generation in your family that doesn’t rely on subsistence farming. How does voluntary gardening change a grower’s relationship to food production and preparation?
It certainly gives me insight and appreciation for my ancestors, who did need to farm for survival. While I have the luxury to stay indoors if I’m sick, or it’s too cold, or too hot, my relatives wouldn’t eat if they didn’t work. While a failed crop for me would simply mean that I would spend some time Googling what went wrong, a failed crop for a subsistence farmer could mean not only a loss of food, but a loss of seeds for the next season.
Also, as someone who doesn’t rely on gardening for survival, I like to experiment a lot. I try to grow vegetables that my parents don’t like and don’t grow just for the experience of growing it. Most poignantly, when I do work in the garden (and especially when I’m doing a task like shelling dried beans), I feel a kinship with all the gardeners who have done that chore before me. I dedicated this book to my grandmother, whom I never met. But every now and then, when I’m working in the garden and my mind is zened out, I have a major, if fleeting, moment of connection with her. It’s not something you’d gain by trying to imagine it. It’s a more spiritual connection that I get by turning the soil in way that she might have or pulling a weed like she might have.
Your own garden didn’t begin until you were an adult. You describe the moment when your daughter said, “Hey, Mom, let’s have a garden!” as the origin of your gardening obsession. How has your home garden continued to be a family endeavor?
This young daughter worked with me in the garden for a few years until she became a teenager and had more fun things to do. Then her little sister became my helper. Now that the little one is twelve, she is also finding that there are other things to do. For a little while, I had no helpers. My older daughter is now nineteen, and this year, she decided to have her own garden. She spent time researching and putting in a pollinator garden. She also planted our window boxes with herbs and anchored it all with mammoth sunflowers. I think when you grow up in a gardening family, your interest may ebb and flow, but once it’s a part of you, it’s always there. My kids know the taste of the first BLT of each summer like some of their peers might not. They know that canned peas are a far cry from fresh spring garden peas. They taste juicy warm strawberries handpicking them each June. If you haven’t started you own garden yet, I suggest you start planning now!
Is there a recipe in the book that you think of as your go-to dinner dish?
I’ve included my mom’s delicious master recipe for cooking most Asian greens. The generous amounts of garlic and oyster sauce go well with most mild leafy greens in the book. We actually eat this most of the year, eating whatever is in season. In the spring, we might eat watercress. In the summer, amaranth. In the fall, tatsoi.
In selecting which vegetables to cover in your book, you explain that Chinese civilization has a long history of good moving across countries via trade, which is why eggplant (Solanum melongena) may be called Japanese or Chinese eggplant. You say, “Regardless of where it originated, every vegetable in this book is either native to China, commonly thought of as Chinese, or plays a solid role in the culinary world of China.” Is there one vegetable you feature in particular that is difficult to find in a local supermarket?
If you live in an ethnically diverse area with a really good international market, I suspect you’ll be able to find many of the vegetables in this book. However, keep in mind these are often grown far away, have traveled long distances by truck, have sometimes been frozen, and are not the fantastically fresh vegetables you see in the photos in this book. You’ve got to try growing your own! Larger specialty stores are also stocking more uncommon vegetables. While taro is become more well known, I doubt most people know what it looks like in its raw, whole form. Sometimes, it’s not the vegetable but the part used that is uncommon. While you may find snow peas in the freezer section of your supermarket, you may not know that the real delicacy is the top six inches of the plant—the snow pea shoots, or pea greens. While you surely know what a sweet potato is, you may not know how delicious the greens are, or that they grow abundantly and pest-free most of the summer!
What have you planted in your home garden most recently?
A couple of new things I grew this past summer were chiltepin peppers and red noodle beans. The red noodle bean is a gorgeous Chinese long bean about ten-plus inches in length. Three plants kept beans in our kitchen for the whole summer. You can pick a few beans and have enough for a generous side dish. I learned about the tiny pea-sized chiltepins from a friend whose mom used to find them in Guatemala. I love to grow native or heirloom vegetables because of the history and stories involved. As I picked those chiltepins, I imagined people finding them wild, in the underbrush, and taking them home to make that amazing, super-hot green sauce my friend’s mom makes—which I now have the recipe for!
If you could only give one piece of advice to a beginning gardener, what would you say?
In the past, I’ve written about immediacy. A garden speaker I once heard said that if a beginning gardener is excited about something and asks for your help, always help them, even if they want to move a tree in the middle of the summer and you know it’s not the right time. My advice to a beginning gardener is similar. Do it while you’re excited. My first year gardening, I had big dreams of growing a four-by-four square full of artichokes. In Maryland. So I bought a pack of seeds and planted them in the ground. Experienced gardeners are laughing by now. Yet I’m proud that I watered those seeds every day, and I know how demoralized I would have been if someone told me that I would never grow artichokes that way. I failed, then researched, then learned!
So my advice is to go ahead and read a book and search the web, but then get out there and just do it yourself. You may have successes, but you will likely have a lot of failures, especially at first. Maybe you forgot to water and your plants dried up. Maybe you watered too much and roots rotted. Maybe you watered too hard and washed all your seeds away. It’s all okay, because next year will be better!
Wendy Kiang-Spray’s articles about gardening and food have appeared in national, local, and web publications. She comes from a long line of gardeners passionate about growing food but is lucky to be the first generation in her family not reliant upon farming for survival. When she’s not working in her garden, she is a high school counselor, garden speaker, and volunteer with the D.C. Master Gardeners. Wendy blogs about gardening, food projects, and family at greenishthumb.net.
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