A Green With Foreign Roots

Tatsoi is a versatile Asian vegetable that can be grown in the winter months.
Tatsoi is a versatile Asian vegetable that can be grown in the winter months. (By Pete Nutile For Johnny's Selected Seeds)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 10, 2008

New ethnic vegetables enter the culinary scene all the time, and the best become multicultural. Tatsoi, for instance, may not be a household word yet in your kitchen, but in mine it refers to an Asian green, international in scope. Thanks to a splendid bed of it in our unheated greenhouse, I'm using it in almost every winter dish I make.

Tatsoi is the Japanese name for a type of pac choi (Chinese cabbage) that spreads out in a wide rosette more than a foot across. Its names in Mandarin, according to Joy Larkcom's Oriental Vegetables, translate as "black lying flat vegetable," "very ancient vegetable" and "gourd ladle vegetable," apt descriptions all.

The leaves, a nutrient-proclaiming deep green, are shaped like the porcelain spoons that come with Chinese soup. Both of the types we grew, one simply called Tatsoi, the other a very dark crinkled type called Yukina Savoy from Johnny's Selected Seeds, have shown warrior-like fortitude despite the season's chill.

Tatsoi can be either direct-sown or set out as transplants, as ours were, 10 inches apart, three rows to a 30-inch bed, in a soil enriched with compost. Planting between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15 should ensure a productive winter crop. As the weather gets colder the plants seem to hunker down as if to embrace the earth's warmth. But as with most Asian greens, frost also makes them slow to bolt, mild and deliciously sweet.

A stir-fry is the most obvious way to use tatsoi, added at the last minute so that the leaves barely wilt and the tender stems stay crisp. They're just as good raw, even when mature. Today's lunch salad brought together coarsely chopped tatsoi, thinly sliced onions and fennel, and shaved carrots. A dressing with Asian flavors, such as sesame, soy and ginger, would have been apropos, but a dousing with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, roasted garlic and honey tasted equally fine. In fact, a layer of tatsoi -- raw, steamed or sauteed -- is the perfect basis for any simple post-holiday meal, topped with warm duck meat and pancetta, or with shrimp quick-fried in hot oil, garlic and pepper flakes. Tatsoi's leaf shape also suggests uses: Let it scoop up a creamy yogurt dip or, on a cold night, an Italian bagna cauda ("hot bath") of butter, garlic and anchovies. You can also grow tatsoi for baby leaf salads, sown an inch apart in the row.

It's this type of versatility that makes me grow the plant every year and keep it in the garden as long as weather permits. Someday it may be as common as tomatoes and corn, which our European forebears once considered novelty vegetables from those exotic little colonies on the western side of the pond.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company