In the Chinese Garden

At this particular juncture of the stars, I am in the process of putting to bed both my garden and my novel manuscript. My garden doesn’t deserve this treatment. There are at least 3 more months of growing season here in Amsterdam. According to my gardening app, I should be sowing lettuce, marigolds, red beets, and carrots. But we leave for our round-the-world adventure in 2½ weeks. There are many tasks that I can entrust to our youngest son a/k/a the house sitter but my garden is not one of them.

So as I turn the soil of my vegetable beds, I think about all the yummy things I could have planted in my garden. And these thoughts lead ineluctably to the Chinese garden.

The Garden of Medicinal Plants

My copy of Medicinal Plants from China, Hortus Botanicus Leiden

Hortus Botanicus Leiden is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the Netherlands. It offers shelter to a collection of plants used in traditional Chinese medicine. I was there just a few weeks ago and to be honest, I couldn’t tell you the names of the plants I saw. My parents may be Chinese but they don’t believe in traditional Chinese medicine.

And yet, when my mom used to make her famous pig knuckle soup, she would throw in a vast array of TCM ingredients. Today, I could probably name the animals who donated their bones to the cause of a meaty broth. I might also know most of the vegetables. But all those dried and gnarly roots, the seeds, the nuts and the bits of bark with their medicinal qualities? Never.

In Hortus Botanicus Leiden, you can find a pond devoted to the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera or lian 莲). TCM uses every part of the lotus: the leaves, seeds, male and female flower parts, and rhizome. I think my mother used to put slices of lotus root into her soup.

There are also goji berries at Hortus Botanicus Leiden though they don’t look like the kind I have in my kitchen pantry. In a garden, they’re called Chinese wolfberries. In TCM, those little red berries are known as gouqizi (枸杞子) and are used to improve the complexion, strengthen the immune system, and brighten the eye.

Chinatown supplies
Goji berries, mushrooms, bean thread, star anise, chestnuts

Peace Court

There is a garden in my novel-in-progress, Peace Court. The title is taken from a real housing complex on Passage 36, Rue de Massenet in Shanghai. These days, Rue de Massenet is called Sinan Lu.

Most lilong complexes like Peace Court are a maze of alleys and lanes and dead ends. There are different types of lilong. In a garden lilong, a patch of green might adorn the front yard. In my novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, my character Max lives in a garden lilong, complete with a fish pond and a lot of tadpoles.

But living space has always been scarce in Shanghai. By 1952, when Peace Court is set, there was no such thing as a room of one’s own. Houses and apartments were divided and redivided until multiple families would share the space formerly devoted to a single wealthy child. A decorative space like a garden would have been an impossible luxury. Unless you used your garden to grow vegetables.

in the vegetable garden
My copy of Vegetables of China by The Cleaver Quarterly

In the vegetable garden in Peace Court, my character Farmer Ren grows garlic, scallions and ginger, the holy trinity of the Chinese kitchen. He also sows mustard greens, pea shoots and mushrooms.

My character Mrs. Yip is so crazy about mushrooms that she’s willing to steal. And who wouldn’t want to gorge when you read the list of mushrooms on offer? Farmer Ren sells straw, tea tree, golden needle, wood ear, and king oyster mushrooms.

This list comes from Vegetables of China, a marvelous compendium assembled by The Cleaver Quarterly. I bought it to use in my garden as a way to record my plant failures and successes. Who knew it would offer inspiration for my novel, too?

The Fruit Garden

Farmer Ren doesn’t grow any fruit in his garden other than his wolfberries. The residents of Peace Court must purchase their fruit from one of the many vendors that service the lanes. In Peace Court, you can buy persimmons, jujubes (Chinese red dates), apples, kumquats and tangerines.

Tangerines go by many names. In Latin, they’re called Citrus reticulata. In Chinese, it’s ganju (柑橘). The Dutch word for orange is sinaasappel or apple of China while its smaller cousin, the tangerine, is called a Mandarin. Tangerine peel, fruit and seeds are all used in traditional Chinese medicine. They’re supposed to quench thirst and improve digestion.

I use dried tangerine peel to make General Tso’s Chicken. And freshly grated peel for tangerine gelato and citrus marmalade.

Vegetables of China

As the name implies, Vegetables of China won’t tell you anything about fruit but it will offer a wealth of information on the vegetables you’ll find in a Chinese meal. Did you know that a classic Chinese dish requires balancing texture, flavor, color, medicinal function, rarity and seasonality? On texture, Vegetables of China says:

A well-composed dish features at least two different types of mouthfeel: slippery, chewy, spongy, brittle, gelatinous, bouncy, unctuous, etc. Some vegetables provide their own textural contrast (e.g. leafy vs. crisp).

The Cleaver Quarterly, Vegetables of China

For each plant listed in Vegetables of China, you’ll get its name (in English and Chinese), its aliases, nutritional value, tips on selection, storage and cooking, as well as a fun fact. Each plant is beautifully illustrated so that all you need to do is bring your copy of Vegetables of China to your local Asian greengrocer and point.

This is how I learned that water spinach (kongxin ca 空心菜) is the name of my favorite Chinese green. My mother stir-fries it with shrimp paste. She says you’re not supposed to go swimming after eating water spinach.

These fun facts alone are worth the price of admission. Here are some of my favorite tips from the Chinese vegetable garden.

In the museum garden
Jadeite cabbage. Image source: Wikimedia
  • In Hong Kong, you can boil sliced ginger in Coke to create a fail-proof cold remedy.
  • Stir-fry pea shoots or mince them for filling your favorite kind of dumpling.
  • Go to the National Palace Museum in Taipei to see a Qing dynasty Napa cabbage carved from a single piece of jadeite.

Wouldn’t you just know it? The first stop on our round-the-world adventure will be Taipei. The stars really are aligning. Little green cabbage, here I come.