Top3List # 16 – Know your greens

I’ve been totally exhausted this last week.

Mornings have become a painful exercise where I lie, semi-awake, negotiating with myself to get out of bed. Pleading in some kind of distorted inner monologue to just keep my eyes open for 10, 20, 30 seconds.

In addition, I have been napping. A lot. I’m not the expert on such matters, but I will hazard a guess and say that my naps have been bordering dangerously close to sleeps (which I define as anything longer than an hour and a half).

Despite the fact that I have, for most of my adult life, been swinging between grossly and moderately iron deficient, I didn’t make any links between my fatigue and said iron deficiency.

Ironically, I’m blaming the tiredness for this oversight.

But it makes sense, right?

I’ve recently stopped taking supplements (I don’t believe in taking supplements long-term, save for when they are recommended by a trusted health professional, opting instead to modify my diet).

In addition, I’m not currently eating red meat (see my blog post on vegetarianism). Oh, and I’m a woman, which makes me more prone to iron deficiency to start with.

And last week,  my vegetable intake left much to be desired. For this I blame the realisation that I can buy delicious unsweetened bread a mere 500 metres from my house.

Having realised the cause of my fatigue issue, I have decided to tackle it with an all-out green vegetable assault.

Problem is, I’m still getting my head around the different varieties of vegetables here (both in recognising them and being able to say the Burmese words for each).

It’s true that Australia and other developed countries do have a wider variety of Asian greens available than ever. So I’ve mostly become accustomed to recognising and cooking each of the well known ones – bok choy, pak choy, wombok etc.

But here, the variety is truly overwhelming – the other day I saw a street store selling so many different varieties, I panicked and retreated in the other direction – lest I had to try and ask how to cook each of them in my broken Burmese.

Yesterday at lunch, I got served a plate full of herbs, okra, cucumber and what looked like aloe vera to eat with my curry.

After judiciously thanking the waiter for bringing the plate piled high with green goodness, I started subtly observing the other diners in the hope that they would show me what to do – put it in my soup? Eat it raw? Garnish my plate? Make a face mask from the cucumber and aloe? Who knows?

It turns out that in Myanmar, serving fresh or pickled greens with meals is widely done to add texture and freshness to what are often extremely oily curries and rice. An excellent principle, no?

Having said that, I still have zero idea what to do with the aloe vera.

I have also faced some challenges in cooking the greens that I have managed to buy. Often, I take the ‘asparagus approach’ (yes, it’s a thing now). Chop of the woody lower parts near the plant root and cook the rest.

Turns out, some of the leaves here should not be cooked, let alone eaten.

The other day I cooked something so bitter, it made my whole face pucker up into a cats bum just by looking at it.

So in a shameless attempt to justify my own research into the issue, I’ve put together a Top3List of the lesser known Asian greens. I figure we should all be eating more of the green stuff, so let’s learn together.

1) Gai Lan (chinese broccoli, chinese kale): 


This one is confusing. Not only does it look nothing like broccoli (OK, it does have small flowers if you look closely), but it seems to be called something different everywhere in the world. It is, however, worth getting to know as it’s ridiculously versatile in cooking, and delicious too. As with other types of kale, the flavour is not too overpowering so you can eat it with any meal of the day – it’s delicious, for example, cooked in butter as a side for eggs at breakfast (as a replacement for spinach). Gai lan (or kai lan) is widely available across Asia, and can be grown easily in your own garden too. To cook it, take the asparagus approach. Wash, cut of off the bottom parts of the bunch (a couple of inches only) and then cut into two or three segments. Then you can just throw the whole bunch in a fry pan with garlic, sesame oil and sesame seeds and you have a delicious compliment to your curry/meat/rice. See here for some more tips.

2) Kangkong (water spinach): 


In Myanmar, this one often gets inaccurately translated as watercress, which is highly confusing as watercress is much finer, smaller, and tastes totally different. Nonetheless, kangkong has recently become one of my favourite veggies to eat and cook. As it grows absolutely everywhere, it’s very cheap too. I know what you’re thinking – why are you eating something which has been grown in larvae-infested water? Truth is, it’s really delicious. And provided you cook it a hot pan or blanch it in boiling water, I reckon you get rid of most of the bugs. You can cook most of the water spinach bunch that you buy, though get rid of the leaves that look a bit curled or brown and cut of the lower parts of the stems. The larger the stems, the more woody they taste – I think the most delicious bit is the middle, so I get rid of the top and bottom, saving a few leaves here and there, before I sautee it with oyster or fish sauce, or a light soy sauce and garlic. The water spinach comes in a huge variety of sizes, so look for it’s characteristic hollow centre and straight-ish leaves.

3) Tung Ho (chrysanthemum leaves): 


I like this guy, and not only because it’s name sounds a bit like ‘gung ho’. You can get both large and small varieties, and typically it can be recognised by the serrated leaves. I’ve got to be honest – this one is pretty niche. I only stumbled across it thinking that the leaves looked a bit like celery leaves (they definitely don’t), and therefore maybe you could make it in a salad.  Turns out, tung ho works best in soups or cooked as a side dish – you can cook and eat the upper stems and leaves, and it tastes remarkably like baby spinach. Make sure you wash it well and remove any tough stems before cooking.

So there’s my quick Top3List. Got any to add? Any favourite recipes? Reply to this post. Extra points for those who know a delicious recipe for okra. 

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