BETHLEHEM — Even in an era in which gourmet groceries can be ordered online and delivered to one’s door, it’s still pretty tough to come by an opo squash that can grow tall as a person, long beans or a spinach-like green that must be grown in water.
That’s why both sides of Nikki Chen’s family are growing these Chinese staples and more up and down the slopes of their respective properties in Bethlehem and Elm Grove. They simply miss what they were once able to purchase at local markets or grow in yards that are now on the other side of the world — in the Fujian province on China’s southeast coast.
So, in early May, water spinach was already beginning to green up in a massive pot in her in-law’s backyard. While many types of produce require good drainage, this staple — which hits about $9 a pound for online purchasing — wants a flood, said Chen, who is part of the family ownership team at China Wok restaurant of Elm Grove.
Another green — resembling grass this early in the season — was sprouting under an old swing set once used by Chen’s sons, now students at Wheeling Central Catholic High School. The swings provide a frame for the ubiquitous deer fencing.
“You stir fry it — some garlic, oil, hoisin sauce. Very good,” Chen said of the greens. “We use the hands to cut it and it grows out three times. After that, it’s too hard.”
Another harvest Chen is looking forward to is that of a zucchini-cousin — the opo squash — that can be as large as a person when harvested. Ella’s family eats it in seafood soups and stir fries.
Also on the menu come summer will be bitter melon — a wrinkly fruit whose diverse uses include medicinal teas and candies.
EAST AND WEST
Chen came to the US in 2003 in her late teens. Her sons de ella have grown up in the US But, she said all three generations of her family de ella enjoy meals that tend to run more to the traditional than what they serve up at China Wok.
Take a fried dumpling that’s a family favorite, she offered. It’s filled with soy sauce, bits of pork and loads of finely chopped chives. The food is beloved at home and chives are grown for it, but when the family tried the dumpling out at the restaurant, Chen said customers didn’t like it because of the strong oniony odor.
That’s OK, she added. Such stuff as clam soups loaded with squash; bitter melon stir fried with garlic and ginger and served with spare ribs; fresh figs; and even wild-grown onion grass that is harvested and used in place of chives in the late winter are all just as good at home.
As is, interestingly, dandelions. Chen said that flower — which was brought to the US by Italian immigrants seeking their own taste of home during an earlier stage of immigration — is popular in China for its health-enhancing properties.
“If that was in China,” Chen said, pointing to a specimen flush with yellow flowers and making a yanking motion, “gone.”
She jokingly said it likely wouldn’t be all that different for the deer the family works hard to keep out of their garden areas.
“I hate deer,” Chen said with a grin. “Deer in China are barbecued!”
SEED TO HARVEST
Chen noted it can be difficult to get seeds to grow traditional Chinese produce. Some can be purchased online. But others can only be acquired by mail through her parents’ and in-laws’ friends.
Gaps in what traditional foods the family can produce on their own are sometimes filled with trips to markets in Pittsburgh or by using an online grocery app called Weee!, she said. That company specializes in Asian and Hispanic foods.
But, the price tags attached to such purchases are yet another reason to grow at home, she noted. Chen said some specialty produce gets into the same price range as steak.
Surveying the freshly plowed main garden at her in-law’s home, she said it is good to know a harvest will come around in time.
“They eat a lot,” she said of her sons. “It’s cool. We don’t need to order the vegetables from the market. We just dig.”