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.
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).
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Leaf crops (including herbs)
- Stem crops
- Roots and tubers
- Flowers (and associated flower parts, such as the pericarp)
- Fruit (sweet and savoury)
- Leguminous crops (pods, peas, beans, herbs)
(And Associated Structures)
Szechuan Pepper aka Chinese Pepper, Chinese Prickly Ash or Male Pepper (Zanthoxylum simulans)
There are many names to describe this plant and its edible parts .. and most are wrong.
Wrong in the sense that they refer to this as a pepper, when its not a pepper at all. It’s actually a member of the citrus family, the Rutaceae. What is correct is that it comes from the Szechuan province of China.
Species related to Szechuan Pepper are used in the cuisines of other Asian countries. But this is the one best known in the West. I use it a lot in my kitchen but most people will know it from Chinese restaurants or takeaways as the spice that gives that tingly, numbing of the lips feeling, when eaten.
Which Part of Szechuan Pepper Is Eaten?
When growing most Asian plants we eat the leaves, fruit, flowers, roots or similar. Szechuan pepper is different. Here you eat the pericarp!
The pericarp is the ripened wall of the plants ovary. Or to define more accurately as per the dictionary it’s “the ripened and variously modified walls of a plant ovary composed of an outer exocarp, middle mesocarp, and inner endocarp layer”.
I tend to think of Szechuan Pepper as the husk around the seed. It may not be botanically perfect a definition but its close enough!
Szechuan Pepper Plant Description
Szechuan pepper comes from a small deciduous tree, around 4 m tall. It’s a very cold tolerant plant from the citrus family and hence related to the Yuzu that I recently wrote about.
The flowers are similar to others in the citrus family, small yellow /green flowers that result in a highly aromatic red fruit containing shiny black seeds. But the seeds aren’t of interest, its the structure, what I call the husk, that holds the seeds that is so flavoursome.
Like many citrus plants the Szechuan pepper has sharp thorns. Beware.
How to Grow Szechuan Pepper Trees
The plant can be grown from seed or cuttings. If from seed it will start to flower at around five years.
Szechuan pepper trees are tolerant of many soil types, but doesn’t like water logging, so I advise avoiding heavy clay soils. Light soils can benefit if abundant organic matter is added. I prefer to do this as a mulch and let the worms and nature pull the material into the soil.
The plant can be grown in a mixed border and does well with understory plants beneath it. If grown in an orchard situation I’d allow 4 metres between plants to allow for long term growth.
In the first year after planting watering is advisable so as it settles in well. Thereafter I suggest you let it fend for itself unless there is a severe drought.
The plant will tolerate temperatures down to -20C and will flower in May-June in most UK locations.
Harvest will then be around September-October.
Feed regularly during the growing season, preferably with an organic fertiliser or by regularly mulching.
Plants may also be grown in large containers. In which case watch the watering and feeding regimes as you don’t want a waterlogged pot or a dry pot.
Harvesting Szechuan Pepper in the UK
The time for harvest is when the pinky red seed cases start to open. Just pick the whole floret and leave somewhere warm and dry to fully ripen.
Separate the seeds and save the pericarp in exactly the same way as you would purchased Szechuan pepper. It’s that simple.
Species Related to Szechuan Pepper (Zanthoxylum simulans)
In the above article I refer to Zanthoxylum simulans which is the Chinese or Szechuan pepper. There are several other related species in cultivation in various parts of the world.
The Japanese form of Szechuan Pepper is Zanthoxylum piperitum. It is similar to the Chinese species but only 2.5 metres high.
In Korea they grow another related species, Z. schinifolium.
In Sumatra they grow Z. acanthopodium.
Z. rhetsa is a favoured species in India, Bhutan, Pakistan, Tibet and Malaysia.
Zanthoxylum fagara is native to southern USA, Central America, the Caribbean and South America. It’s sometimes called the Wild Lime. The powder bark has been used as a spice.
Calabash (Lauki, Dudi or Dudhi), Lagenaria siceraria
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.
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 ……
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.
If you want a punchy eye-watering wasabi flavour but don’t have the time to grow true wasabi this plant is the answer. From seed to inch high micro-greens takes me 12-14 days depending on the conditions and in that time the plant develops a real deep wasabi flavour that is great sprinkled on salads, or as a micro-green on meats and other dishes. Used in a rare beef sandwich it’s wonderful.
The module grown seedlings in the image are about to be planted out. Some will go into my greenhouse and some outside. That will spread harvest. Though when to harvest is also flexible as they can be a micro green or eaten as a bigger far more mature plant.
Grow them slowly and the flavour develops even more with a genuine tasting Japanese wasabi flavour!
Restaurants are now using Wasabi Rocket, it’s getting very trendy. But there’s no reason why you can’t grow your own and be enjoying that wasabi flavour punch in just a few weeks.
How To Grow Wasabi Rocket
Wasabi rocket is very easy to grow and requires no special conditions or nutrition.
My method is to multi-sow modules with 3-4 seeds. and plant out into the soil, containers or into the greenhouse depending on the weather conditions and my needs. 3-4 seeds many sound excessive as germination levels are generally very high, but there’s a method in my madness.
I normally remove a few seedlings from each module as I plant out. These are my micro green crop. Next I let the crop grow on and harvest on a weekly basis to get a crop of small leaves/plants for salads or other use.
When planting I space them quite close together. Just 3-4 inches between modules. This means I can eventually space the final plants at 3-4, 6-8 or even more inches apart by judiciously harvesting when I need to. It’s a simple way to maximise yield over time and in a limited space.
Remember the rule of thumb that close spacings give us smaller plants whilst more space gives bigger crops.
Wasabi rocket can be grown in the No Dig beds with no fertiliser being added. In beds or containers I’d add a sprinkling of a slow releases organic fertiliser. Adequate watering is needed throughout the life of the crop.
Ruby Streaks is a really fast growing “mustard greens” leaf crop that looks a bit like a purple mizuna. But it isn’t mizuna (B. rapa var niposinica), or even mibuna (Brassica rapa var. Japonica) it’s a close relative, Brassica juncea.
Ruby Streaks lives up too its name. It’s a beautiful ruby colour, with dark almost fernlike leaves that brings colour to salads. The taste is a sweet peppery flavour, though it changes a bit in intensity, depending on the season.
The seed is typically small as with most brassicas and it germinates quite quickly, even at lower temperatures. In my part of Devon I can germinate in winter in an unheated greenhouse. Once germinated its fast growing and cold tolerant.
Another mustard green Golden Frills is therefore another Brassica juncea. But this time it has an even more dissected (frilly) leaf and its light green yellow .. though not really golden in my view. Again it’s crisp, spicy and fast growing, though not quite a fast as Ruby Streaks in my greenhouse.
But whatever the rate of growth it’s been with us for millennia. It’s allegedly been grown in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas for 5000 years!
It’s location in the foothills indicates its preference for cooler conditions, though in our equitable climate here in Devon it grows all year.
Interestingly, some references claim that though cold tolerant the plants will not survive under 25F. However, in my greenhouse it has coped well with -6C which is 21F.
Mizuna (Brassica rapa var. niposinica) &
Mibuna (Brassica rapa var. Japonica)
These are quite similar crops and perfect for eating raw in salads or cooked in stir fries. Both can be grown in tunnels or greenhouses, especially in winter when I grow them unheated.
The flavour of both live up to their alternative names of Japanese mustard and spider mustard and I love the peppery flavour they provide dishes.
Asian greens such as mizuna and mibuna are the perfect additions for your polytunnel, ideal for using raw or cooked salads and stir fries,or other recipes. Mizuna, the first of these Japanese greens, has cut and come again leaves with a distinctive peppery, cabbage flavour.
Other names for them is include Kyona. Xiu Cai and Potherb Mustard.
Mibuna isn’t quite as vigorous as Mizuna but both are best grown as cut and come again crops. Personally I take the outer leaves and leave the centres to keep growing. This leads to frequent and many harvests.
Choy Sum (Brassica chinensis var. parachinensis)
Choy Sum is a type of Pak Choi (Brassica chinensis). Aka Chinese flowering cabbage.
Its a popular leafy green in China and I often see it in Chinese supermarkets here in the U.K. where it’s sold as a flowering crop. The flowers are yellow as might be expected of a brassica. The leaves are generally green though there are purple variants as well.
Don’t let Choy Sum get too dry or it will bolt before it gets to a size where the flowering stems are large enough to make worthwhile.
Gai Lan (Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra) aka Chinese broccoli.
Another Pak choi similar to Choy sum is Gai lan. Again it’s a leafy green but this one is often harvested and eaten before flowering. Should it flower the stems quickly go stems woody. Before flowering it forms heads like a smaller version of the broccoli many of us grow in the U.K. Though this one tends to be a bit more bitter.
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.
More Asian Vegetable Crops …
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.
Chinese Shawo “Green Meat” Radish (Raphanus Sativus)
This is a daikon type radish with an emerald green flesh. It’s hard to find seed in the UK, though more widely available in the USA.
In Asia this is a highly favoured type and appreciated for the juicy but crisp texture and green flesh colouration. al of the plant may however be eaten.
There are actually several cultivars available under the “Green Meat” heading, with varieties such as Qing Luo Bo, Green Luobo (a small amount of seed is available in U.K. in 2021) and Misato Green.
Grown for thousands of years in Asia this is a cold tolerant group but also appreciate plenty of sunshine. If they don’t get it they are often best harvested young for their leaves.
They can be used in similar ways to daikon radish. One favourite is to slice very thin and eat with soft cheeses and creamy dips that set off their slightly pungent peppery flavour. They also go very well in sushi or sashimi, or can be grated in sandwiches. Alternatively pickle them or add them to kimchi. Or roast them like other root veg.
The Chinese also traditionally use them to make radish soup
At the annual Qingdao Radish Festival the 10 inch long Shawo radish are carved into delicate dragons, koi carp, mythical zodiac creatures, ducks, and buddhas.
Below is one of the very simplest ways to create a decorative “carving” from a radish or cucumber
Chinese Shawo Radish Cultivation Details
Shawo radish take around a week to germinate, depending on conditions. They the take around 60 days to maturity provided they get ideal conditions. Here I have to stress that these are marginal plants in the UK. Conditions rarely favour them to get to a good size but they can be used to produce a leaf crop at least and a root at best.
Because of their size I recommend growing just a few to a time in the corner of a bed or container. You are unlikely to need many if they mature well. And once you find the secret to success you can then scale up growing in future years.
Normal plant spacing is 4-8 per square foot or 2 gallon bucket!
Even More Asian Vegetable Crops ……
Leguminous crops (pods, peas, beans, herbs)
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.
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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