Hon tsai tai
By Hanna Raskin
Before learning to cook with hon tsai tai, it’s best to learn how to say it: The Cantonese name for the leafy green is pronounced HON-sie-tie. Hon tsai tai is a vegetable you might well encounter this week if you belong to a Community Sustainable Agriculture program, since the plant can be sown in early spring. Its stalks may look purplish, since cold weather intensifies hon tsai tai’s distinctive coloring. Whether green or purple, the entirety of the brassica is edible. Here’s what else you need to know before you start sauteeing:
1. Hon tsai tai is related to mustard greens, a kinship that’s apparent upon tasting. The vegetable has recognizable bitter notes, although it’s also sometimes described as sweet.
2. There are regional differences in attitudes toward hon tsai tai’s little yellow flowers. According to the Green Your Palate blog, Thai and Laotian cooks like to prepare the flowers, while Chinese and Vietnamese cooks tend to discard them.
3. Although they’re an essential component of a Chinese meal, greens usually get short shrift on restaurant menus, which invariably describe the side dish as “seasonal greens.” But hon tsai tai is a popular pick in this category, also home to water spinach, bok choy, wolfberry, Chinese leaf cabbage, mizuna and garland chrysanthemum. Chinese cooking authority Fuchsia Dunlop suggests preparing any of the greens by blanching them, piling slivered chili, ginger and spring onion atop and then dousing with hot oil and soy sauce.
4. Just as cold weather sends hon tsai tai into purple fits, hot weather causes it to blossom more vigorously.
5. Like most vegetables, hon tsai tai comes in multiple varieties but few of them grow in the U.S. “At present, there is little choice in the west,” laments Joy Larkcom in “Oriental Vegetables,” citing the “brilliantly colored” variety predominant in Chengdu and hardier varieties available elsewhere in China.
6. While not as common as collards and other longstanding Southern greens, hon tsai tai and its Asian cousins have the advantage of less fibrous leaves, which makes them more suitable for serving raw in salads and quick stir-fries. “Once you get people familiar with it, they get a little hooked,” Justin Aiello of Skylight Farm last year told Atlanta Magazine.
7. To store hon tsai tai, wrap the greens in a dry paper towel, then slide them into a plastic bag and refrigerate. If stored correctly, hon tsai tai should last four or five days.