By now, those of you who read this blog regularly probably know that I have a thing for vegetables. Let me clarify: when I say vegetables, I don’t mean salad. Salad is well and good, and I enjoy it often enough. But it just doesn’t have the same capacity to excite me as, say, a big plate of roasted kabocha squash and onions spiked with shichimi togarashi, a velvety soup of puréed carrots and leeks, or a tangle of smoky-sweet grilled peppers.
Sometimes I eat so many vegetables that I’m unable to finish my meal, as happened at lunch yesterday. The culprit in this case was a plate of sautéed brussels sprouts, caramelized around the edges and bursting with sweetness. Soon enough, I realized I had little room for the rest of my lunch, including the delicious sour-sweet kumquats that I’ve been popping into my mouth all week. What can I say? The brussels sprouts were good.
In comparison, the vegetable dish I want to tell you about today may seem rather mundane: stir-fried greens. No doubt some of you are thinking, “It’s the week before Christmas, and you’re writing about spinach?” Well, yes and no.
When I was in Vietnam last month, I was astounded by the variety (and volume) of green, leafy vegetables and herbs available at the markets. Some, such mustard spinach, were familiar from Japan, but most were completely new. If I asked my guide the name of the vegetable, the answer was usually, “Vietnamese vegetable” or “Vietnamese spinach.” It’s a strange thing to say, but the fact that there was simply no way to describe these plants in English only added to their allure.
Vendors would pile these leafy bushels at the market in wide, shallow straw baskets, or simply arrange them on the sidewalk at their feet. After becoming accustomed to Japanese produce, pristine in its plastic packaging, it was reassuring to see vegetables presented in this way – clumps of dirt still clinging to the roots, a worm hidden among the stems, leaves bursting with chlorophyllous goodness.
Luckily, many of the restaurants I visited listed several varieties of stir-fried greens on their menus. Because I was wary of contracting a stomach bug and hence shied away from preparations involving raw vegetables, I partook of these greens quite often. However, my decision to do so was not truly out of necessity but rather because I wanted to eat as many of them as possible before leaving. Who knows when I’d have the chance again?
Some varieties were quite similar in taste in texture to conventional spinach or swiss chard, while others were more akin to Japanese sansai (mountain vegetables), with a pronounced bitterness and somewhat fibrous texture. Though domesticated, these Vietnamese greens tasted as though the wildness hadn’t been bred out of them. While the bitterness may sound unappetizing, it was actually incredibly appealing, especially when paired with the similarly robust flavors of garlic and fish sauce.
Among all these greens, the standout was a dish of stir-fried pumpkin vines, which I helped prepare in a cooking class in Hanoi. After painstakingly peeling away thin layers of fiber to reveal the tender portions of stem beneath, the vines were washed and briefly blanched. Then, they were immediately thrown into a wok slicked with a searing-hot layer of oil, no drainage necessary. After sputtering for but a few seconds, a splash of fish sauce and some black pepper were tossed in, permeating the kitchen with a funky scent. Just before removing the pan from the flame, a generous amount of garlic was added and given just enough heat to lose its raw edge.
The result was, as you can imagine, nothing particularly exciting to look at, yet there was something utterly addictive about them. The fish sauce underwent a miraculous transition in the heat, losing its sharp edge and subtly perfuming the entire dish, taming the greens’ bitterness and unifying it with the piquancy of the garlic and pepper. As I learned over the course of my trip, this complex interplay of flavors lies at the heart of Vietnamese cuisine. While achieving this balance is no easy task, these greens are a perfect – and relatively simple – introduction.
Stir-Fried Pumpkin Vines with Garlic and Fish Sauce
These greens, with their somewhat prickly and fibrous exterior, are a bit laborious to prepare, but the process goes quickly with a few pairs of hands. Although the leaves and tendrils are completely edible, only the upper portion of the vines are tender enough to eat. If you can’t find pumpkin vines, feel free to substitute your favorite green.
Serves 3-4 as a side dish
About 30 young pumpkin vines, or 2 bunches of greens with relatively firm stems (kale and collards would be too tough here, but mustard or turnip greens would work well)
A few tablespoons cooking oil
2 tablespoons fish sauce*
Black pepper, to taste
2 cloves garlic, finely minced (about 2 tablespoons)
Peel any tough fibers from the vines, using only the tender stems, tendrils, and leaves. If using other greens, prepare as you normally would, leaving the stems intact. Wash the greens well and dip into boiling water for just a few seconds.
Heat oil in a large pan over high heat and throw in the branches or greens. (No need to drain them first.) Cook, tossing, for about 3 minutes (less if using more tender greens). Add the fish sauce and pepper. Just before removing from heat, add the garlic. Serve as a side dish with steamed rice.
*Vegetarians may substitute a few pinches of salt, although the dish will lose some of its special flavor.