New ethnic vegetables enter the culinary scene all the time, and the best become multicultural, eventually. Tatsoi, for instance, may not be a household word yet in your kitchen, but in mine it refers to an Asian green, international in scope. When I overwinter it in our unheated greenhouse, I use it almost every day.
Tatsoi is the Japanese name for a type of pac choi (Chinese cabbage) that spreads out in a wide rosette over a foot across. Its names in Mandarin, according to Joy Larkcom’s Oriental Vegetables, translate as “black lying flat vegetable,” “very ancient vegetable” and “gourd ladle vegetable”, apt descriptions all. The leaves, a nutrient-proclaiming deep green, are shaped like the porcelain spoons that come with Chinese soup. Even in a harsh winter it shows warrior-like fortitude.
Tatsoi can be either direct sown or set out as transplants. We space ours 10 inches apart, three rows to a 30-inch bed, in a soil well enriched with compost. Transplanting between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15 should ensure you a productive winter crop in Maine, as long as you offer some protection — if not a greenhouse, then a cold frame.
As the weather gets colder the plants seem to hunker down as if to embrace the earth’s warmth. But as with most Asian greens the cool temperature also makes them slow to bolt, mild, and deliciously sweet.
A stir-fry is the most obvious way to use tatsoi, added at the last minute so that the leaves barely wilt and the tender stems stay crisp. They’re just as good raw, even when mature. A lunch salad might bring together coarsely chopped tatsoi, thinly sliced onions and fennel, and shaved carrots. A dressing with Asian flavors — sesame, soy, ginger — might be a propos, but so might olive oil, balsamic vinegar, roasted garlic and honey. In fact, a bed of tatsoi, raw, steamed or sautéed, is the perfect basis for any simple post-holiday meal, topped with warm duck meat and pancetta, or shrimp quick-fried in hot oil, garlic and pepper flakes.
Tatsoi’s leaf shape also suggests uses: let it scoop up a creamy yogurt dip or, on a cold night, an Italian bagna cauda sauce of butter, garlic and anchovies. You also can grow tatsoi for baby leaf salads, sown an inch apart in the row.
It’s this type of versatility that makes me want to grow the plant every year, and keep it in the garden as long as weather permits. Some day it may be as common as tomatoes and corn — which our European forebears once considered novelty vegetables from those exotic little colonies on the western side of the pond.