Why you should buy vegetables you've never seen before

Illustration by Adriana Picker

Illustration by Adriana Picker

Supply exceeds demand for Paulette Whitney's lesser-known crops, like shungiku or celtuce, but those who do buy them buy enthusiastically.

Standing behind my farmers' market stall at the end of the day, I'm desperately hoping for a last-minute flurry of adventurous customers. I should have listened to my sensible co-farmer and knocked off for a beer, rather than harvesting things nobody wants. But how can I leave for market in the morning knowing there's delicious shungiku in the garden unpicked? There's a stem of the plant's gold and white flowers included in each bunch and I think they look very fetching. I've made a sign espousing the culinary gifts of shungiku. But it just won't sell.

My saviour comes in the form of a Japanese student. Seeing the shungiku she grabs a bunch and clasps it to her chest. "Shungiku!" she cries.

Touching her throat, miming discomfort, she tells me that her mother would steam a big bowl of shungiku greens whenever she complained of a cold, and have her eat it doused in lemon juice. Other passing customers pause to hear her story and, thankfully, I'm relieved of a few bunches of this lovely vegetable.

A few customers later, a Chinese woman stops by and points enthusiastically.

"Tung ho," she says, using the Chinese term for shungiku. "It's so good in a steamboat."

She goes on to describe her tabletop pot filled with broth, with bowls of shungiku, noodles, spring onions and paper-thin sliced beef on the side ready to drop in and cook. Her description makes me want to leave my chilly market stand and follow her home proffering bunches  of greens in exchange for her beautiful food. No internet search for ideas could inspire the hunger this woman's words did.

Winter is the season for killing pigs, and the season for stem mustard, a Chinese mustard grown for its swollen stems, looking for all the world like green, big-headed cartoon aliens. Peppery on the outside, crisp and savoury-sweet inside, it's traditionally salted, fermented and sold in jars of brine. In my kitchen I hadn't moved beyond mustardy coleslaw, but when my friend Pauline came to help out the day we killed our pigs, she inspired a new, as yet untried preparation. Pauline's mum had bought some stem mustard a few weeks earlier and fermented it in the water drained from boiled rice. She wanted to stuff the pigs' stomachs with it, then sew them up and boil them. The challenging part of slaughter day for me is the squeamishness I feel afterwards - I find myself unable to enjoy the fresh innards as I should - and I still regret not following that pig's stomach and mustard to its surely tasty end.

Celtuce, or stem lettuce is another favourite, giving an extended harvest of sweet, cos-like lettuce leaves followed by the main prize, another swollen stem. It has a clean lettucey taste and a crispness that holds its own even when cooked. In my usual, bumbling, Western way I've made delicious meals with it - the best grilled on an open fire, basted with roast-meat juices - but once again a market customer put me back on a traditional path. The innocent sweetness of the celtuce is perfect with the earthy nuttiness of sesame oil, seasoned with soy and spiked with a little chilli. A moment in the wok and a bowl of steamed rice on the side, one couldn't wish for a more perfect meal.

All these plants thrive in a wide climatic range, and all are thoroughly delicious, so why do we not see them more regularly at market, and why are recipes so hard to find?

The challenge I find in selling these things, despite their inherent tastiness, drives this. Demand begets supply, and I'd surmise that supply begets recipes. So I ask this of you: if you see something you haven't met before at market, please buy it, cook it and share your recipe for me to find next time a row of aliens sprouts in my garden.

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