Many prized vegetables originate from or were bred in Asian countries, from India to Japan to Malaysia. Great emphasis is placed on the beans, cucurbits, greens, and root vegetables, and many are very old, select varieties collected and grown for generations. The best are flavorful and great for any home garden.
Local climate often dictates growth preference. For example, vegetables bred in Thailand, Vietnam, or Malaysia are heat and drought tolerant, while the vegetables of northern China prefer cooler climates. Many of these crops are unknown to American gardeners, but consider trying a few this season, if you like Asian cuisine or simply delicious garden-fresh food.
The asparagus or winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) is both attractive and delicious—sporting red flowers and beautiful winged beans. It is a warm season crop that produces long twining vines that produce edible beans just 75 days after planting. It is grown in tropical regions due to its marked tolerance to high heat. The unusual looking pods taste like a cross between peas and asparagus. Asparagus bean has added value because the leaves are eaten like spinach, and the edible roots have a nutty flavor.
Also well-adapted to high heat and summer growing is the yardlong bean (Vigna unguiculata ssp. sesquipedalis). Its vigorous vines bear loads of very long beans that reach 12- to 16-inches and taste delicious. They have been grown for centuries in China and are best sautéed or stir fried.
Japanese cucumbers are unique in that they are very long, thin skinned, and crisp. They grow on rambling vines that are best trellised to accommodate the cucumbers that can reach between 8 to 12 inches. Try the open-pollinated variety ‘Sooyow Nishiki’, which has thin, warty skin and crisp, sweet flesh.
Many Asian melons exist, which are bred and selected to be remarkable sweet. The open-pollinated Japanese variety, ‘New Melon’ is golden, smooth skinned, and was developed in the 1950s for Japanese growers. Each vigorous vine produces between four to eight melons. Be sure to plant them as early as possible, because vines take between 110 to 120 days to produce fruit.
Most westerners know luffa as a natural sponge for bathing, but in China the young gourds are a popular vegetable. The angled luffa (Luffa acutangula) is commonly referred to as Chinese okra and has a sweet taste (much like zucchini) when harvested young. Give the vines plenty of space, or trellis them for easier growing and harvest.
Greens & Cabbages
Bok choy (pak choi) is a mild, cool-season green that produces rosettes of green leaves with fleshy white bases. These are fast-growing and typically eaten stir fried. Some varieties are very small and others large. The super small variety ‘Extra Dwarf Pak Choi’ is very fast growing , reaching full size in just 30 days, and is just right for edible container gardening.
Valued as a spring vegetable across Asia, Korean minari is a leafy green that tastes much like watercress. It is closely related to celery and is a vital ingredient in Korean bibimbap bowls or can be prepared as a spicy vegetable side dish. It grows best in cool weather and slows growth in temperatures above 70 degrees F.
Chinese cabbage is a well-known, cool-season crop that produces large heads that may be barrel-shaped or loose headed. Try the old Japanese variety, ‘Aichi’, which is a large, barrel-shaped variety that produces dense heads with a sweet cabbagy flavor. These grow and taste best in the mild temperatures of spring or fall.
Radishes play an important role in the cuisine of many Asian cultures. These include watermelon, daikon, and hot radishes as well as those used for microgreens. All radishes are fast growing and best suited to growing in cool weather. When temperatures are hot, they don’t develop substantial roots and taste very hot. Watermelon radish types are some of the most beautiful with their red interiors and greenish-white exteriors. They are also fun for kids to grow. Try the Chinese radish ‘Red Meat’, which is thin skinned, sweet, and ready to harvest 60 days after planting.
Turnips are a common root vegetable, but most western gardeners are not familiar with red turnips. These fast-growing, sweet root vegetables are popular in Asia and eaten fresh or cooked. They are typically red on the outside and white or pinkish on the inside. Try the traditional Japanese turnip ‘Hidabeni‘, which has flattened roots with scarlet exteriors and white interiors.
Eggplant is essential to Asian cuisine, from India to Japan. Most are elongated, mild, thin-skinned, and have few seeds. This warm-season crop bears many fruits over the season. One of the easiest and best varieties to try is the Taiwanese eggplant ‘Ping Tung Long‘, which is very heat tolerant and has bright purple fruits that reach over a foot long. The equally large green fruits of the Japanese ‘Choryoku‘ are also firm, sweet, and delicious.
Favorite Thai eggplants are a bit different in that many are smaller and oval or round. They may be green striped or deep purple. The small, round variety ‘Petch Siam’ is grown from India to Vietnam. Its small green striped fruits are numerous, and the plants like high heat.
There are many squash grown and favored across Asian countries, but some of the sweetest and best tasting are kabocha winter squash. These somewhat flattened, globe-shaped squash typically have dark green skin and gold to orange flesh that is smooth and very sweet. The open-pollinated kabocha from Japan, ‘Kuri Winter’, has very sweet, thick, golden flesh and dark blue-green skin. Plant it early as vines take 95 to 110 days to produce good fruit.
For high vegetable yields be sure to feed your crops with a granular organic vegetable fertilizer early in the season. Amendments such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and Fafard Garden Manure Blend also ensure high soil moisture and aeration to encourage vigorous root growth. Double–digging is another great way to optimize deep root growth to help plants withstand moderate drought and high heat.