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Chinese kitchen garden winter greens

by Timber Press on November 1, 2017

in Food, Gardening

All included photos by Sarah Culver.

Vegetables play a large, enchanting role in Chinese meals and traditions, and a Chinese kitchen garden is rich with versatile winter staples. Read more about Wendy’s family history along with gardening and cooking tips for cold-weather crops.

Every now and then, I ask my father questions about his first garden, knowing that this is the vehicle for learning more about his childhood life. The climate in my father’s Shandong, China, is much like our climate in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. We have similar hot summers, cold winters with hard freezes and snow storms, and beautiful spring and fall seasons.

In early winter before the ground froze solid, my father, my uncle, and my grandmother dug large pits several feet wide and deep in their nearby garden. Then, if they were lucky, they would be able to borrow a wheelbarrow or wagon for the walk further out to the family’s larger growing fields. They would harvest cold-weather crops such as Napa cabbages, radishes, and winter squash and bring them back to the pits in the garden. There, they were buried for use throughout the winter. As he told the story, I loved the image of the Napa cabbages upside down, neatly lined up and stacked several levels high. When the cabbages neared the soil line, they would be covered with dirt, leaves, and later snow and stored until they were needed. The cabbages would be buried upside down with roots facing up to prevent the inner leaves from being covered in loose dirt. The upward-facing roots also provided an easy way to fish for and grab the hefty heads of cabbage. During the coldest days of winter, my father would go out to the pit and dig out two or three heads of cabbage to last his family the week. Several large and beautiful cabbages would also be buried in the pit, but stacked right-side up with roots facing down. This was my family’s way to designate the seed cabbages that would be transplanted into the garden in the spring. When summer approached, the cabbages would flower and their seeds would be saved for fall planting.


I grew up not knowing the hunger and the hard work required to stave off that hunger that my relatives just one generation back experienced. I’m saddened that this was a life my father and his family lived, but I am also empowered by their ingenuity. With handfuls of seed along with intellect, determination, and physical work, they created everything they needed to survive throughout the year, including the harsh winter months, in a place where refrigerators, grocery stores, and even basic living conveniences such as heat and plumbing were nonexistent. These stories keep me inspired to learn more about growing and preserving my own food. When I harvest herbs, greens, or radishes from under snow cover in my own garden, I feel a small spark of connection with the boy my father was, and the grandmother I never knew.

Like all living things, plants contain water. When frozen, the cells of tender plants expand and then burst, causing the plants to wilt or turn to mush. However, certain vegetables like tatsoi and daikon radishes (and Western vegetables such as carrots and kale) actually taste better after they’re hit with a few hard frosts. In response to very cold temperatures, these frost-tolerant plants convert some of their starches to sugar. Increased sugar helps to keep the plants’ cells from freezing and becoming frost-damaged, similar to how applying salt to roads keeps water from freezing on the surface. This protective process also happens to make vegetables taste noticeably sweeter.

烏       TATSOI
塌       Mandarin: wū tā cài
菜       Cantonese: wu taap choy

Tatsoi lights up the landscape of my father’s fall vegetable garden when most vegetables are done for the year. He loves both the taste and texture and looks forward to that first frost to hit the tatsoi and sweeten the leaves. Most commonly known by its Japanese name tatsoi, this bok choy relative is also called flat cabbage (describing its prostrate appearance) or rosette bok choy (describing the neat concentric circles formed by the round dark green leaves).

Chinese connoisseurs enjoy tatsoi for its beauty as much as its taste, and many know it as tai koo choy, which means ancient vegetable. Tatsoi has a mild mustard taste and is sturdier as well as more nutritious than regular bok choy. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners use tatsoi to strengthen the liver, blood, and bones. Tatsoi has high levels of calcium, vitamins A and C, and folates. In fact, this superfood has almost twice the vitamin C of a serving of orange juice, and tops the list of calcium-rich cruciferous vegetables.


Tatsoi is a coolweather crop and is grown just like bok choy. A productive spring crop may be difficult to maintain because plants will go to seed when the heat of summer arrives; flea beetles can also be a nuisance when spring sown. A fall crop stands up better to pests and bolting. Tatsoi is a slow-growing with a long harvest period. A fall crop actually extends from fall through winter in colder climates. Tatsoi has been known to withstand temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It is not uncommon to make a quick trip to the garden in parka and gloves to harvest tatsoi from under snow cover.

For a successful fall crop, sow seeds directly in the ground in late summer or early fall. Plant about 1/4 inch deep, in rows 18–24 inches apart. As plants grow, thin tatsoi to about 8 inches apart. Keep the soil moist as the tatsoi germinates and grows. Plants grow upright in warmer weather but as the temperatures drop, tatsoi becomes more prone. It takes 6–8 weeks to mature fully; baby leaves are ready after only 20–25 days. To harvest, cut the entire rosette or cut outer leaves as needed.


Because tatsoi grows so close to the ground, it is important to rinse the leaves well to remove dirt and grit. Eat baby tatsoi leaves raw in salads or add them to salad mixes that will highlight their mild mustard taste and tender texture. They are also excellent tossed with a tangy dressing and wilted slightly. You can cook mature tatsoi either as separate leaves or as a whole rosette. These versatile and healthful greens are delicious in soups, stir-fries, or simply sautéed (my family’s preference). Tatsoi works well as a substitution for any Asian leafy green, spinach, chard, or cabbage.

This is my mom’s master recipe for greens. Gailan is my favorite, but this recipe works for pretty much every green leafy vegetable including watercress, Malabar spinach, sweet potato greens, choy sum, and tatsoi. Tender, leafier greens can take just 30 seconds to cook whereas greens with thick stems need up to a few minutes. The best way to know when they’re tender is to taste them. Or, you can rely on my mom’s trick: if she can easily stab her thumbnail into the thick stem, it’s done. SERVES 4

  • 1 pound greens, rinsed and dried
  • 1/4 cup oyster sauce
  • 3 tablespoons corn or peanut oil
  • 5 cloves garlic, chopped

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add the greens and cook until tender, 30 seconds to a few minutes, depending on type. Remove the greens with a Chinese skimmer (or tongs or a slotted spoon) and place on a serving plate. They may be a little wet and that’s okay. Top with the oyster sauce.
2. Heat the oil until hot in a frying pan. Add the garlic and fry until golden and fragrant, 1–2 minutes. Pour the oil and garlic onto the greens. Serve family style with rice and other dishes.

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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