A Taste of the Exotic


Kohlrabi

Sue Whigham slashes the air miles with her recommendations for the tastiest unusual veg to grow at home...

I love TimeOut's description of Brixton Market as a 'sensory fiesta' for that is what it is. And in the course of my weekly grandmotherly duties, I've found myself exploring the shops in the market selling fruit and vegetables from all over the world. I feel that I'm at the very beginning of a very big learning curve. Last week I spotted some beautiful clay Ghanaian pestle and mortars and squeezed into the shop to have a conversation with both the owner and the Ghanaian ladies who piled in after me. I came home with the pestle and mortar and some vegetables that I hadn't seen before. The bunches of tiny Ghanaian onions have already been planted and the ladies suggested that as they sprout, we use the sprouting shoots in salads as they do. In India, there is now an increasing demand for what the locals consider to be exotic vegetables and their farmers are now rising to the challenge and growing cabbages, broccoli and carrots! Well, it can work both ways.

Calaloo

I thought I would start by mentioning Chinese amaranth or 'calaloo', much in evidence in the market. This vegetable is very much used in West Indian cooking and is sold in bunches rather like spinach. The leaves of this plant are a dark green with shades of red and there is a rather good variety called 'Red Army' which has decorative and delicious bright cherry red leaves. 'Kerala Red' is a smaller plant but as its name implies, its leaves are a vivid red and it, along with 'Annapurna' does rather well in the UK. Calaloo is bursting with vitamins and iron and can be steamed, used as a salad leaf and forms the basis of a lot of West Indian cooking. Amaranthus dubius is the true calaloo and grown in a sunny position can reach 1.5 m.

Sow late, wait until May. Calaloo likes a well drained sunny spot so added grit or sand in the planting holes will help provide the conditions the plants like. Once the plant gets going, pick it regularly to keep it coming back.

YinYang or Orca Beans

These beans are absolutely beautiful and so called because one half of the bean is white with the other half being a shiny black - like the YinYang symbol associated with Chinese astrology. They come from Mexico and grow as a high yielding dwarf bush bean. The beans can be harvested as green beans when they're young or left until the pod is dry and the beans can then be collected and stored - perfect for adding to stews and soups.

Coming from Mexico, they need a lot of sun and a long summer so if you want to try them, it might be an idea to get them in as soon as possible. Mice also find the beans delicious so growing them in pots first and then planting them out as plugs has its advantages.

Kohlrabi Seeds

Kohlrabi

This is a relative of the wild cabbage and a very strange looking vegetable - rather like a hand grenade. It is on a list of the 150 healthiest foods on earth and is particularly popular in India. It is a great favourite of the Kashmiris. All parts of the vegetable are edible: you can fry up the root, use the leaves in salad or munch the stems. Kohlrabi is accommodating to grow in that it is perfectly happy on dry poor soil and can be harvested when it is quite small. I was recently talking to a friend who used to be a local publican. He recommended shaving raw kohlrabi thinly, adding to it some chilli, beef carpaccio slithers, and oil and vinegar dressing before sprinkling over coriander (home grown) or parsley.

Yard Long Beans

These are also known as snake beans or Chinese long beans and are a very vigorous climbing annual. They can produce hugely long pods just a couple of months after sowing and grow at a rate of knots although they can be a bit tricky at first. Great fun for children to try, these beans are very energetic - although you can't quite see them grow as you watch them. They come, in their different varieties, from South East Asia and Southern China - the different beans can be identified by their seed colour. The pods are edible, crispy and a great source of fibre and are much used in stir fries. As they are a subtropical/tropical plant, they do best in a warm place and can be grown as a greenhouse crop. The length of the bean rather depends on where they are grown but the average length is about a foot. I was talking to someone in the community greenhouses in Brockwell Park in South London last week and she was saying that they grew them outdoors last year and they happily reached that length but that might be something to do with London's microclimate.

Okra

Okra is also known as ladies' fingers or bhindi. Originating in Africa, Hibiscus esculentus is a really decorative plant which grows between two and two and a half feet and basically needs the same conditions as cucumbers. The highly nutritious pods are very low in calories and have a high percentage of Vitamin C content as well as other health-giving properties. Okra jambalaya is an early variety with a high yield and very large flowers which are also edible.

The pods are used in stews and curries and also as a thickening agent in soups.

To grow them, sow the seeds under glass or in a propagator in late spring having soaked them in warm water for a day first and then transfer them into pots of multi-purpose compost until they are large enough to pot on.

Coriander Seeds

Coriander

I know this is a herb rather than a vegetable but it is really a must as not only is it a very pretty plant but to buy it in the supermarket is expensive and I find that the plant wilts and shrivels up rapidly if it isn't used fairly promptly. The feathery leaves are very attractive as are the flowers which grow in pinky white umbels. And they self seed. They do tend to bolt pretty quickly so sow successionally throughout the summer so that you've always got some leaves to use raw in a salad or chopped as a garnish. The seeds are used as a spice and have a citrusy flavour when they're crushed.

Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810457948 for gardening advice and the sourcing and supplying of interesting garden plants.

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Photographs: Sue Whigham
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Recipes Type: Gardening