Chinese cuisine has many kinds of vegetables, but the one I’m most familiar with is bok choy. Like other Chinese families, bok choy is the most common green eaten during meals in my home, and not a day went by without bok choy. Although we ate this vegetable consistently throughout my life, I’ve never gotten sick of it. Each dish my mom prepared with bok choy was unique. The size, texture, and taste varied depending on what she felt like cooking then. One day it could be scalded in boiling saltwater then drizzled with sesame oil and oyster sauce or it could pan stir-fried with minced garlic cloves. Sometimes, mushrooms were added for more umami or mixed with noodles to balance the different food groups. Also, as a side dish, bok choy is eaten together with many Chinese meals like Chicken Rice, similarly to how salad might be for western dishes. Even when I lived by myself, bok choy was an easy vegetable to prepare if I wanted to add nutritional value to my meals.
Because local supermarkets such as Safeway or Raley’s do not provide local Chinese ingredients for Chinese cuisine, my family and I picked up our supply of Chinese vegetables in Chinatown every weekend. I remember my family’s weekly trips to San Francisco’s Chinatown the most growing up. As I waited outside the crowded shop, my mom competed with the surrounding swarm to grab the freshest produce.
Not only did we go buy vegetables, but also, to maximize our long trip away from home, we also bought roasted meat from the butcher shop, ate dim sum at a traditional Chinese restaurant and cut our hair from the barber who’s cut my hair since I was young. If we decided not to go to Chinatown that weekend, instead we drove to the Ranch 99 market in Concord. Ranch 99 is an Asian supermarket where they also sell many of the ingredients, like pickled turnip and coconut milk, required in many Chinese recipes. They supply many Chinese vegetables, meats and even fish great for stir-frying, braising or stewing. They also provide a lot of Asia specific dry herbs and spices, like dried mushrooms and chili paste.
My family embraces our culture through our cooking even though we are surrounded by many non-Asian lifestyles. Even though I was brought up in a western country, I have desensitized myself to eating Chinese vegetables because of how often I see it, but that doesn’t mean I have removed its significance and the impact it had on my life compared to my peers who may not have experienced its value. The tradition and culture remain a part of my history and that of my family that immigrated from Southeast Asia to the United States for a better future.
Author: Daniel Wong. Daniel is a first-year UC Berkeley student studying Mechanical Engineering.
Do you have a favorite family recipe featuring plants or vegetables? Share it with us in the comment section!