pak choi

The USA is a melting pot of ethnic cuisines, but varies geographically. Italian and Mexican are consistent. The lacking flavours here in the north east are Indian, Middle Eastern, Asian and specifically Chinese. Restaurants exist with Americanised dishes as the mainstay such as ‘sesame chicken’ (double fried chicken with sesame), but there’s not a vegetable in sight. Some common UK dishes such as Peking duck don’t exist.

Non-existent in retailers is also the prepared stir fry category. In the UK one of my standard repertoire dishes was a stir fry. I used a prepared bag or multi-compartment tray of mix, whether mushroom, pepper, rainbow or edamame. Throw in some sauce and protein, and it’s your healthy balanced dinner done.

Here, those bags/trays do not exist, with the exception of one small lonely ‘chopped vegetable stir fry’ tray in Trader Joe’s. You can buy beansprouts, but not consistently. Asian cuisine, from a produce retailer perspective, is all about leaf: petite Shanghai, petite baby bok choi, gai lan, yu choy, fresh bok choy, bok choi tips, baby bok choi (different from petite baby bok choi!), fresh napa, Chinese cabbage – which looks like a skinny head of Chinese leaf – and finally Shanghai bok choi.

Even with this plethora of leaf and complementary prepped equivalents it isn’t actually about ‘Asian’ cuisine. Some of the usage ideas are simply that they are good leaf options for salads or as a side dish to non-Asian meals.

Upon recently bemoaning the lack of prepared stir fry to an American counterpart, I was met with indignation that I hadn’t been to the Asian supermarkets. So the next morning off I traipsed with toddlers to investigate one of the three Asian warehouses in my town. I expected the vats of soy sauce and indecipherable jars. I didn’t expect two large aisles of fresh produce, in which I recognised the Daikon radish, garlic shoots, Chinese long beans and oriental mushroom varieties. There were plenty of items I didn’t know or use, such as Chinese broccoli, moqua, sin qua and opo.

I honestly don’t believe the average three-burgers-a-week Britney comes here often, but for the vegan, Californian, smoothie-drinking cliché they are as indispensable as an artisan boulangerie.