Califonia Bountiful

Moving into the mainstream

May/June 2014 California Bountiful magazine

Hmong farmers grow interest in Asian vegetables

Asian vegetables come in a variety of intriguing shapes, sizes, textures and flavors.

Asian vegetables such as bitter melon, long beans and lemongrass have been a mainstay of ethnic markets for years. With the popularity of Asian cuisine, they are now also enjoying a growing presence at farmers markets, produce stands and even mainstream grocery stores.

But their unfamiliar names and appearances may not always appeal to first-time shoppers, some of whom may find themselves overwhelmed by the selection or a bit hesitant about buying something they're not sure what to do with.

Fresno County farmer Tzexa Lee grows more than 30 kinds of vegetables common in his homeland of Laos.

"I've been telling people: Do not feel intimidated by these vegetables. They are good for you," said Fresno County farmer Tzexa Lee, who grows more than 30 different kinds of specialty vegetables that are common in his homeland of Laos.

Hmong farmers such as Lee account for much of California's production of Asian vegetables, contributing to the state's ever-growing crop diversity.

As Southeast Asian refugees, thousands of Hmong fled to the U.S. starting in the late 1970s, escaping their war-torn counties of Laos and Vietnam. Many of them settled in the San Joaquin Valley, bringing with them their agrarian roots and rich culinary traditions. They turned to what they know—farming—and began growing many of the familiar vegetables of their old country.

"Historically, we were always farmers," Lee said. "Farming is a skill that we brought with us."

Rena Hernandez with harvested Thai eggplant.

Learning and adapting
The Fresno County region alone is home to more than 1,500 Hmong farmers, the largest concentration in the U.S., while the city of Fresno has the nation's second-largest Hmong population.

Lee moved to the U.S. in 1980, later settling in Fresno and reuniting with his four brothers, with whom he started a farming business. He and his wife, Kay, now run the farm together. While Lee's family did not farm commercially in Laos, he said farming became a means of survival in the new country.

There was much to learn and adapt, however. In their native country, Lee's family farmed primarily to feed themselves and grew their food on much smaller plots. They didn't have to worry about California's stringent food safety, environmental and labor regulations like they do now. Everything was done by hand. They'd scatter the seeds and wait for the rain. In the winter, they planted at higher elevations to take advantage of the natural moisture, never needing to water their crops.

Nengchue Yang packs vegetables from the farm, including Korean melon, below, and fuzzy melon.

Farming in Fresno's arid conditions requires a different skill set. Here, Lee had to learn how to drive a tractor. And rather than just spreading seeds on the ground, he learned to plant his crops in straight rows to accommodate farming equipment and allow easier access for weeding, fertilizing and harvesting, which must be done by hand.

Asian cooking demystified
To expand new marketing opportunities for Hmong farmers, Lee said he has tried for years to promote the health benefits of Asian vegetables and teach people how to use them. He even took part in cooking demonstrations at an Asian crop harvest festival a few years ago to generate interest.

With the local food movement going strong and consumers desiring more vegetables in their diets, Lee said Asian greens fit right in.

"Our message to people is that you don't have to go to a restaurant to eat Asian food," he said. "You can cook right at your home, and here's a recipe and here's how you cook it."

Lee said one of his favorite dishes is stir-fry beef with long beans and lemongrass, a meal he describes as so satisfying that it keeps him full all day with plenty of energy to farm.

Bitter melon, which looks like a cucumber with warts and has a bitter taste, as its name suggests, is typically a harder sell to the uninitiated. Those who've never had it are often taken aback by how bitter it is, Lee said, but find it more palatable once cooked with the right ingredients. He said it is now his top-selling item, although he noted most of the demand for bitter melon comes from Asian markets.

Kou Sonh Dam, who runs a Lao and Thai cuisine restaurant with her daughters Anne, left, and Anna, uses Asian vegetables in dishes such as phad phet, below.

Anna Dam, whose family runs the Lao and Thai cuisine restaurant Kou Sonh in Fresno, said bitter melon is not on the restaurant's official menu, but customers sometimes request it—usually in a stir-fry or soup. She said one of her favorite ways to prepare it is to stuff it with pork or shrimp mixed with dried bean thread noodles.

"I like (bitter melon) because I grew up with it," she said. "For Asian people, it's kind of like chicken noodle soup for Westerners. It's a comfort food."

Lemongrass, which provides a zesty citrus flavor and aroma to dishes, is considered an essential ingredient in Lao and Thai cuisine. Peel away the tough outer layers of the stalk and it can be used to flavor broth, season marinade or add crunch to stir-fry, Dam said.

"Lemongrass is really a staple in our culture," she said.

'Be adventurous'
Recognizing that these ingredients could be adapted and used by people of all cultures to boost their consumption of vegetables, a group of nutrition educators at the University of California developed recipes for popular Asian vegetables in hopes of encouraging more people to try them. They worked with now-retired UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Richard Molinar, who devoted much of his tenure helping small-scale Southeast Asian farmers.

"What we discovered was that some of the vegetables and produce were so different that people didn't know how to prepare or store them," said Connie Schneider, director of the UC Youth, Families and Communities Program.

After scouring a number of cookbooks and talking to Hmong farmers about what they use in their cooking, Schneider and Molinar created 12 recipes with some modifications to simplify preparation. For example, they minimized the number of ingredients in each recipe and added clear measurements, as many recipes are handed down by families and not in writing, Schneider said.

Tzexa Lee, right, works with Sam Vang, a soil conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who helps Asian farmers master Western farming techniques. The two have experimented with using a trellis system for Asian vine crops at the farm.

Each recipe includes a photo of the fresh vegetable and the prepared dish, as well as background and nutrition information. They are available at

Schneider said the recipes represent authentic Southeast Asian cuisine but with "a little twist."

"We looked at what was going to be available for consumers at farmers markets and we asked,'How could we introduce it more into a fusion cuisine?'" Schneider said. "We wanted to have a variety of experiences for consumers because bitter melon may not be everyone's favorite, but what we always tell children is to be adventurous."

Ching Lee

Take a look at these

By now, most shoppers recognize leafy greens such as bok choy and napa cabbage, both Asian vegetables commonly found in mainstream supermarkets. Here are a few others that may catch your eye at the local farmers market or Asian grocery store.

Chinese long beans: Also known as yardlong beans because they can grow 3 feet long, these pods are skinnier than common green beans but similar in taste.

Bitter melon: This bumpy-skinned vegetable is eaten when young and green, as bitterness increases with age. Boiling it, such as in a soup, will reduce its bitter taste, as will adding salt, meat and other vegetables.

Luffa: When it's old, it's used as a sponge to exfoliate skin. But when it's young, luffa has a similar but sweeter flavor than zucchini. Varieties can have smooth or ridged skin.

Lemongrass: Much of its lemony flavor is concentrated in the lower part of the stem, which can be chopped, minced or pressed. The leafy ends can be used to infuse teas, broths and soups.

Fuzzy melon: Also called hairy melon or fuzzy gourd, this squash has a mild flavor and is eaten when young, about 1 week old. When it matures, it becomes winter melon, which has a waxy skin without the fuzz.

Thai and Indian eggplants: Unlike other varieties of Asian eggplants that are long and slender, Thai and Indian eggplants are round, about the size of a golf ball. Because they tend to be seedier than the long varieties, they are harvested young. Thai eggplant is green, while Indian eggplant is purple.

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