Connie Cao grew up eating tons of delicious Chinese vegetables at home — but never really knowing their English names, let alone realizing she could grow them in her backyard in Naarm, Melbourne.
All that changed a decade ago when her parents, both immigrants from Shanghai, planted a vegetable patch and filled it with Asian vegetables from their childhood.
We spoke to Connie – who also now has her own thriving Chinese vegetable patch – about sourcing unusual seeds, learning about traditional dishes and how the simple action of plants in soil helps connect with her Chinese heritage.
How did you and your parents start food gardening?
My parents came to Australia from China in 1988 to study English and seek a better life. They weren’t gardeners, but 10 years ago we moved into a house previously owned by a lady who was really interested in permaculture.
She had landscaped the garden nicely with fruit trees, rainwater tanks and a large vegetable patch, so my dad just started growing whatever seeds he had.
I would go on YouTube and say, “Oh, that’s how you grow kale.” And then he would grow it. So we sort of learned gardening together.
When did your family start growing Chinese vegetables?
My mother is in a social club with people from Shanghai, where my parents are from.
She discovered they had a vegetarian seed swap and my dad slowly switched from cucumbers and cabbage to all these Chinese veggies.
Some things are really obscure that I had never heard of.
Like the other day, my father gave me a packet of seeds, which they call ji mao in Chinese. I’ve searched online and there is no English name for it – the literal translation is ‘chicken feather vegetables’. It’s a little leafy green, like bok choy. You harvest her almost at the seedling stage, measuring maybe 10 centimeters in size.
I once told him that I grow loofahs to make shower sponges. And he was like, “I already grow these and you don’t make shower sponges out of them, you eat them.” It was pretty funny.
So Dad would take care of the Chinese vegetables, and that taught me a lot of those things.
Now you have your own garden full of Asian leafy greens?
About five years ago my now husband and I bought a piece of land in far east Melbourne and I was inspired by my parents to start growing Chinese vegetables here.
I grow bok choy, pak choy, Chinese broccoli, tung ho (a favorite in stew), Malabar spinach, loofah, pink amaranth (a popular Chinese vegetable), wombok, michihili, white radish, tatsoi, chrysanthemum greens, and many other things .
My parents are in the process of downsizing and my father was very sad to lose his garden. But at least I can share my vegetables with him and my parents can still eat their childhood food.
We love it because many of these veggies are hard to come by in Australia, or they’re expensive, not very fresh, or have a lot of packaging. I don’t spray my veggies so everything is really clean and fresh.
Where do you get seeds to grow Asian vegetables at home?
I buy a lot of my seeds online – there tends to be more variety. They often sell out, but you just go on the waiting list.
Otherwise, I find that the specialist nurseries and independent nurseries are much more varied these days – you just have to go at the right time, like at the start of the season.
Sometimes I discover Chinese vegetable seeds that my father hasn’t found yet, and we both get very excited.
For people just starting out, what are the easiest Chinese vegetables to source and grow?
Bok choy and bok choy are easy and don’t take long to grow. You pick the outer leaves of each plant and then it keeps growing and you can keep harvesting.
I’m starting to see more wombok, Chinese broccoli, and broad beans. Chinese mustard is good; They have really big leaves, maybe 40 cm.
And garlic chives are great—my parents stir-fry them with scrambled eggs like they do in Shanghai. They can be grown year-round in Melbourne, much like scallions – they’re also widely used in Asian cuisine.
Does growing Chinese vegetables help connect you to your culture?
Definitive. Growing up, I knew I ate Chinese food, but I knew nothing about it. I didn’t learn English until I was in prep, so I never really knew the English names of these foods or that they could be grown here.
Now I’m learning exactly what I ate. Dad tells me how people used to cook in China, and then I try to cook it myself, using vegetables that I grow myself.
And I understand more of what my father is talking about because I can read it in English too – my Chinese isn’t the best when it comes to obscure words.
Many of my “ABC” (Australian Chinese) friends were also surprised to learn that you can grow Asian vegetables here.
We often cook hot pot together. I grow the veggies, we do a garden tour before IT and pick what we need and maybe my friends will bring the tofu or whatever. It’s nice to have garden-to-table vegetables.
I also give our surplus vegetables to our neighbors and they come back with a dish for us. They’re Indian, so they take the same vegetables and cook them very differently than me.
It’s so cool because you also learn more about other people’s cultures.
Koren Helbig is a freelance journalist who practices permaculture and grows organic food in the backyard of her small urban home in Tarntanya, Adelaide.
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