Many Asian Vegetable Crops & Non-Traditional Ethnic Crops Are Grown In The U.K. By Ethnic Communities, Those Seeking A Gardening Challenge or Dietary Diversity. But Though These Crops Tend To Come From Warmer Climes They Aren’t All Challenging.

Asian Crops
Many Asian and Ethnic Vegetable Crops Can Be Grown in the UK
The U.K. has a rich tradition of welcoming people from around the world to our shores. And when those people settle here they often bring their culture and food with them.  Many of them grow a variety of Asian vegetable crops and/or a wide range of non-traditional ethnic crops. The diversity of Asian and ethnic crops eaten can be seen by visiting ethnic food and grocery shops in our major cities and towns.  But they are unable to stock all the foods that can be grown here.  Some have a short shelf life and cannot undertake extensive flights from foreign climes. To see those crops we need to visit the gardens, community gardens and allotments where they are grown. The U.K. has populations of gardeners from around the world, it’s multiculturalism at its best.  And I was fortunate many years ago to become part of it when asked to grow a range of ethnic vegetables for the Asian communities of Bedford, Leicester, Bradford and Bristol. We grew ethnic vegetables of various sorts but heard them referred to as bhagee / Śākabhājī / Sabazī’āṁ / Kāykaṟikaḷ / سبزیاں / depending on who the customer was. Perhaps the most confusing thing about growing them for me was that the customer often brought me a large bag of seed with a request to grow it, but I didn’t know if this particular vegetable was to be harvested as leaf, stem, root or fruit. Working out what was wanted, when to sow (often the information was something like in April on the plains and June in the mountains), how big they became, how much space was needed and how to harvest them was part of the daily challenge at which we had to become adept. To save you some of the hassle I had, in this article I’m going to split the various crops into leaf, fruit, stem, grain and other sections.  

A Few Ethnic Vegetables To Start With

I’ll start with just a few ethnic vegetables, selected from the seven types , and then add more to the mix as the weeks go by.  In just a few months we’ll have 20, 30, maybe 40 Asian, African, Indian and other non-traditional crops detailed here. Drawn from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, Thailand, China, the Caribbean and beyond we’ll have a smorgasbord of culinary delights to eat raw or cook.  

Growing Unusual Fruit and Veg in the UK

Elsewhere on this site I’ve written about unusual vegetables and unusual fruit to grow in the U.K. Most of those crops were easy to identify even though readers may not have realised they could be grown here. So we’ve covered the commercial cropping of tea in Cornwall and citrus fruit in many parts of the country as well as cardoons, sea kale, samphire and figs.  But these are all easily recognised crops well known to white middle class gardeners that buy them at top end shops and supermarkets and dabble at growing them in their gardens. But in this article we take a multicultural journey back to the roots of ethnic minorities who have travelled here from foreign climes. Their  languages maybe Gujarati, Punjabi, Afrikaans,  Japanese, Chinese, Hausa, Kyrkyz, Swahili, Yoruba or Zulu.  But their vegetables are their connection with home. As communities in a new land they have propagated and saved seed.  The result are crops better adapted to the British climate. Genetic drift has ensured this and would fascinate Gregor Mendel, the Silesian father of modern plant genetics, if he were still with us. Equally as important is the impact these new crops have on all of us. They bring with them a greater awareness of the food plants others eat and expand our own growing opportunities. In fact, so aware are we of some ethnic crops that some communities have produced commercial growers to grow their crops here. As long ago as the 1980s I was aware of Chinese growers producing Chinese vegetables in the UK. And today that trend has continued. There are an increasing number of ethnic growers establishing here and in other countries where they have settled. And they have an advantage over local growers as they understand the crops and how to grow them.  

How Ethnic & Asian Vegetable Crops Challenge Growers

Growing ethnic vegetables, especially those from warmer climes is always going to be difficult until they are wet established (but don’t let that put you off, some are now becoming established). Why?
  1. Many ethnic crops require long seasons if they are to mature. It’s not that they’d necessarily need them where they originate but our cooler climes makes growth slower.
  2. Send of reliable quality is hard to find, especially in the early stages. However, our seed companies are resourceful and are producing seed as demand requires
  3. Many ethnic crops aren’t suited to mass production and mechanisation. So growers have to change their production techniques. In reality this means that small scale production is more suited to the crops and most will be produced this way.

The Types of Ethnic & Asian Vegetable Crops That Can Be Grown in the UK

When we think of vegetables we tend to think of those we are used to. Crops such s carrots, cabbages, potatoes, peas, sweetcorn and tomatoes will quickly come to mind. And if we think a bit more we might come up with a few more unusual ones such as recently favoured quinoa or heirloom crops such as perennial kale. But there are many more we could add and to make it easy I’ve broken them down into the following categories.
  • Cereals
  • Leaf crops (including herbs)
  • Stem crops
  • Roots and tubers
  • Flowers
  • Fruit (sweet and savoury)
  • Leguminous crops (pods, peas, beans, herbs)


Calabash (Lauki, Dudi or Dudhi), Lagenaria siceraria

Bottle gourds
Bottle gourds can be very decorative .. or eaten
This gourd like crop can be eaten if picked young and will taste a bit like a crunchy courgette. But grow them a bit bigger and you can turn the into a water bottle (they are sometimes called bottle gourds), uses them as a table decoration or turn them into a musical instrument.  

How to Grow Calabash / Duhdi / Lauki.

The plant grows as a vigorous vine and young plant shoots can be used in curries. The plant are surprisingly relatively cold resistant,  but are frost susceptible so don’t plant out before the risk of frost is over.  Having said that don’t start them too early, May is fine. Germinate them in a warm place, they need a minimum of 18C/65F but preferably higher. You can start them in a general purpose compost or germinate on tissue parer and then plant in a pot as soon as they start to shoot. Because they are vigorous and could grow to 4 metres high you can grow them in less fertile soil. But its best if in full sun and sheltered from the wind. Plant them ion the chosen site once the soil warms up as you s=don’t want them to be checked by the cold this early. The faster they get away the better. Give them plenty of compost or wet rotted manure to retain moisture as much as to feed them. and give them a framework to climb. Good stout posts and wires or nets work OK. If it comes cold after planting use a bit of fleece for a few days until they are growing strongly. Now ensure they are kept well watered. they need moisture to grow well.  

Harvesting Dudi

As young fruit harvest when 6-8 inches / 15-18 cm long. Mature fruit can be just left to grow a hard skin and used as a decoration or bottle gourd.  

Cooking Lauki / Dudi / Calabash

Cut into cubes, boil and mash when tender. Add butter, spices or herbs to taste. Alternatively add to curries, soups or even stir fries.  

Playing the Calabash

I said the calabash was musical. It can be a percussion instrument. Discover more by clicking the link.  

More Asian Vegetable Crops ……


White Maize

White Maize Can Be Grown in the UK
White Maize is An Ethnic Crop That Can Be Grown in the UK. But it needs a long growing season
Globally there are many types of edible maize grown for human and animal consumption. For example the sweetcorn many of us grow in our gardens is a form off maize. So is the maize grown on the farm near my home, but in this case it is made into maize silage and fed to dairy cows. And not all maize is the golden yellow we tend to see in the UK. It comes in so may colours, from browns to reds, yellows and of course white. All forms of maize and sweetcorn are cultivars and varieties of Zea mays. Z. mays is part of the Gramineae/Poaceae  (grass) family and is distantly related to wheat, oats, barley and rice. It’s one of the most important food families in the world. Where would be be without maize, wheat, barley, rice etc.?  Maize is of American origin and was originally domesticated by the indigenous people of south Mexico around 10,000 years ago. Globally more maize is grown than any other grain crop. White maize is a staple in many countries and, in the UK, people of African and Caribbean descent are the most likely to grow it in their gardens and allotments. White maize is unlike sweetcorn and produces a drier, more starchy, less sweet cob. And, unlike sweetcorn, it is dried and ground into a flour or meal for making dishes such as Zimbabwean porridge. Occasionally it is roasted and eaten that way.  

How to Grow White Maize in the UK

White maize needs the correct light levels to flower. If the day length is too long it fails to flower. So most varieties don’t thrive in the UK. But by persistently searching for the right varieties gardeners have found a few varieties that are less sensitive to day length. These will grow in the UK. The second problem is that white maize needs a long season as it doesn’t flower until July and isn’t ready for harvest until October. Therefore, though I’m no fan of prematurely starting many crops off in the greenhouse, white maize is one that will benefit from it. Especially as we go further north or higher in altitude. . So start it in deep modules, plant out when the risk of frost is pass. The crop is capable in the UK of growing three cobs per plant, so space well apart. 15-18 inches between row and maybe a foot or bit more between plants. Having said that, some authorities recommend direct drill at 2-3 inches deep once the soil temperature reaches 8C for five consecutive days. Which method should you select? Much will depend on local conditions. Whichever method is used it pays to grow in a stale seedbed as this controls weeds. You also need to ensure the tilth is fine as lumps encourage slugs. Apply a third of your fertiliser at sowing/planting time with the rest once the crop has a couple of true leaves. Unless you are growing No Dig, in which case the compost should provide adequate slow release nutrition. I prefer the latter to chemical “artificial” fertilisers that can be leach out of the soil. White maize often grows very high. 2.5 metres (8 feet) is quite normal. Remember, maize is wind pollinated to plant in a block rather than a single long row.

Buying White Maize in the UK

Because white maize cobs don’t store and travel well, fresh cobs are rarely seen for sale in the UK. Maize meal is however imported and available in specialist shops.  

Leaf Crops

African Kale (Chomolia & Covo) Brassica oleracea var. acephala

There are two types of African Kale. Chomolia is from Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, has a short growing season and flowers in the UK. Covo doesn’t flower so is similar to perennial kale varieties such as Taunton Deane and Daubenton kale. So, whilst Chomolia is grown from seed, Covo is grown from stem cuttings that same as perennial kale. To take Covo cuttings, take 3-4 inch long cuttings from a mature plant, trim back to a node , remove excess leaves (or  they will transpire faster than the rootless stem can take up water) and pot up in a free draining compost. Place in a sheltered warm spot (bottom heat will speed heating if you can get it) and wait the few weeks it takes to root. Keep watered of course! Chomolia seed can be sown in modules in May. Grow as any other brassica.  

Planting African Kale

Chomolia and Covo kales need plenty of nutrition if they are to crop well. So manure the ground before planting. Choose a well drained spot but be prepared to irrigate if it gets excessively dry. Chomolia can be transplanted in June. Plant them 60-80cm apart in the row and between rows. Tighter spacings will give smaller plants. Covo cuttings can be left until the following spring to transplant. Use similar spacings if you wish, or go slightly further apart as this is going to be a tall plant that needs a bit of elbow room. Both types of African Kale are relatively shallow rooting so need a fairly firm soil to root into.  

Harvesting African Kale

Leaves can be pulled or cut from the plants when required. Taking little and often tends to promote fresh growth and keeps the plant more vigorous. Covo will often crop for several years. In Africa both varieties are eaten fresh or sun dried for later use.  

Roots & Tubers

Growing Oca in the UK (Oxalis tuberosum)

This is a South American plant related to our wood sorrel. The tubers are wrinkled, brightly coloured, yellow, red or purple and, though the yield is small, it is a reliable cropper. The flavour is a nutty/lemony taste and develops well when roasted in a light oil until tender. They take 15-25 minutes to cook, depending on size.  

How to Grow Oca in the UK

There are two methods to start them off. You can pot the tubers up in March, grow them on in the greenhouse and then transplant in May OR you can just plant them outside in May. The May planted are going to have to catch up but I’m never keen on double handling plants. Which is may preferred method will depend on the final yield. Oca don’t develop tubers until quite late in the season, so the late ones might catch up. They normally have harvestable tubers in October or November. The lowish yield and late cropping (which soils are cold and wet) might account for the lack of oca in supermarkets. It makes them all the better fro home growing in my view.  

Even More Asian Vegetable Crops ……

Leguminous crops (pods, peas, beans, herbs)


Edamame plugs
Edamame plugs ready for planting.
Edamame are the immature seed pods of soybeans.  They’ve been grown in China for around 5000 years and there are around 50 names for them in different parts of the country. They are also considered a delicacy in Japan. In the West edamame are relatively new, though soya has been grown here for high protein animal feeds. Endame are frost sensitive so need sowing after the risk of frost is over.  And they are apparently sensitive to being overly wet when germinating, though I can’t verify this as a fact. What I do know as fact is that the immature pods need picking whilst still green. Don’t wait until they start to go yellow. Pick the early to get them at their best. Think if it as like growing a mange-tout type crop  …you can’t be too early but you can be too late. Either sow direct or plant from plugs.  They grow to around 2 feet high so give them a similar distance between rows and around 2-3 apart in the row. When picking  take all the pods at once, remove the plant and replant with the next crop ASAP. If you cut the stem off at ground level the roots will create drainage channels as they decay.  Soyabean plants are a great No Dig crop as it’s so easy to follow them with a plug plant of something that will mature quickly and they open up the soil.  

Cooking Edamame

The Japanese prefer cooking the pods whole and eating them that way.  They just give them a quick boil in salted water.  Chinese recipes often suggest they are podded with the free green bean steamed or boiled. I find a really quick way to cook them is to rinse them and immediately microwave them whilst still damp. They are easy to get al dente this way.  

Methi (Fenugreek) Trigonella foenum-graecum

I first grew fenugreek, or methi as my customer called it, when given enough seed to grow around a fifth of an acre. I sowed it in June, in rows in a seedbed outdoors and eight weeks later we were harvesting the most wonderful smelling crop. It was a single cut leaf crop but there is another type Trigonella corniculata which gives several cuts.
We grew methi for several seasons and I was always amazed at the rich aroma the seed gave off. The seed shape also intrigued me. It’s a strange double lobed shape that always reminded me of a heart.  The colour ranges from dirty yellow to bright yellow. The interesting thing about methi is that it’s a legume.  So it contributed a little nitrogen to the soil when its roots died. Methi is one of the Asian Vegetable Crops grown extensively in India where its used as a spice/herb to flavour dishes. One other thing I like about methi was that as a quick growing crop it fitted between two main crops in the cropping plan and gave an extra income boost in mid-late summer.  

More on Ethnic, Non-Traditional and Asian Vegetable Crops

Watch out for more Ethnic and Asian Vegetable Crops as they are added over the next few months.  

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