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No need to order Chinese takeout, grow your own Asian vegetables

Add international flair to the garden with bok choy, snow peas, and Napa cabbage.

By Dean FosdickThe Associated Press / August 19, 2009

Napa cabbage is easy to grow, and can be used in soups and stir-frys.

Dean Fosdick/AP

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Plant an assortment of Asian vegetables in the family garden or in any suitable pot, and you'll be able to stir up an inexpensive batch of fresh, flavorful food easier than you can say "Chinese takeout."

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Chinese salad greens, for example, "thrive in both vegetable and flower gardens, are low in calories, are worth their weight in nutrition and are deliciously different from the more familiar greens," said Geri Harrington in "Growing Chinese Vegetables in Your Own Backyard" (Storey Publishing, updated edition 2009). "They're not in any way limited to Chinese cooking; Chinese vegetables fit in comfortably with familiar American recipes and their use is practically unlimited."

Ms. Harrington wrote that in 1984 but it's even more appropriate now, said Norma Chang, an author and lecturer specializing in Asian plants and cuisine, in the foreword to the new edition of Harrington's book.

"In the intervening years," Ms. Chang wrote, "both gardeners and cooks have become increasingly curious about the cuisines of other cultures and increasingly confident in growing foods from the other side of the planet."

Growing Chinese vegetables is no different than trying to grow a new hybrid tomato or corn, although the Asian veggies may look prettier, Harrington said.

"Snow peas are more attractive to grow than English peas; Asian squash are more handsome and more interesting than jack-o'-lanterns. Another difference, especially important to container gardeners, is that Asian vegetables generally seem to be more prolific," she said.

Finding seeds or starter plants has become easier in recent years but still takes some effort, Chang said by phone from her home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"There's more interest building in these plants," Chang said. "People seem to know what they are and what they taste like. Now they want to know more about preparing them."

Here are several reasons why growing your own Chinese vegetables is worth digging deeper into the pages of seed catalogs or shopping at Oriental markets:

- Mustard greens. A fast-growing crop available in many varieties. Leaves can be clipped when young, especially for use in salads.

- Flowering kale or cabbage. "Don't look for it in the vegetable side of seed catalogs," Chang said. "It's more commonly listed among the flowers." Plants mature into a striking array of reds, pinks, and greens, and look great in containers or borders. Cook as you would any cabbage: shredded, boiled, baked or stuffed. It also makes a striking centerpiece.

- Daylilies. Chinese eat daylily buds fresh or dried. "Soak the dried buds in water to reconstitute, then throw them into a hot and sour soup," Chang said. "They're mild tasting and will give you a little texture. They look like orange flowers in soups." Daylilies are perennials. Pick buds before they're fully opened.