I have a love-hate relationship with pea tips. When they are perfect, shot through with tenderness and spring-fresh pea flavor, I’m in a state of bliss. But they are an iffy vegetable to buy, a potential pain in the butt. If you’re not thorough in prepping them or buy a bag full of mature tips, you end up with a stir-fry riddled with dental floss-like pieces. Sometimes the pea tips resemble damp toothpicks. In other words, you don’t want to eat them because you can’t chew them. Pea tips thrill but can frustrate.
What are pea tips? A variety of snow pea that’s grown only for its tender tips. Sold at Chinese markets, they’re called dou miao in Mandarin. Pea tips look like pea vines but they only grown a foot or two; they are not trellised. (If you want to grow pea tips, here is a seed source.)
A few years back, I visited with an Asian-American farmer who explained that harvesting pea tips is very time consuming. To get a bag of good tender ones you have to be careful and knowledgeable when snipping. She showed me some plants in a hot house and while they all looked the same to me, they were over the hill to her. We had to squat to get at them. Pea tips are a bargain at $3 to $5 a pound, given the amount of labor that’s required to get them to market.
Last week, I bought two bags for about $3.50 a pound. They looked fresh and tender at the market. My husband cleaned them, snipping off the tendrils that always cook up like floss. What he and I didn’t anticipate were the stiff pieces that refused to soften in the wok. I had cooked them up for a Lunar New Year dinner but decided to not serve them because they were not ready for primetime. I wasn’t about to tell guests to spit out woody, inedible pea tips.
The next day, I went through the pea tips again and found that some pieces felt very hard and stiff. They seemed unyielding compared to the stems that charmingly bent. The stiff ones were likely the ones that gave me trouble.
I snapped all of stiffies and in some cases stripped off the leaves to cook. At the end of the line, I had only about 3/4 of my stash.
I stir-fried what was left and even with the second pass, there was still an inedible piece that stuck out from the rest of the pile. That said, what I ate was delicious, the essence of peas but in leafy green form.
The pea tip experience reminded me of something my mom likes to say, "Tiền nào của nấy," (tee-en now cu-ah ney) which roughly means you get what you pay for. Next time, I’m buying closer to the $5 a pound range. I'll hopefully waste less time and fewer pea tips. If you have pea tip tips, please please share!
How to cook pea tips? Restaurants often present them in a shallow bowl surrounded by a moat of rich chicken stock. At Koi Palace, a fantastic Cantonese restaurant in Daly City, CA, the chefs add some fresh tofu skin (yuba) for color and textural contrast.
I’ve stir-fried pea tips with stock and chicken/duck fat in the past too. But you can also just do this:
Simple Pea Tip Stir-Fry
Yield: 4 servings
- Swirl of canola oil
- 1 or 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (optional)
- 1 1/3 pound of pea tips, tendrils removed and stiff pieces discarded (net 1 pound)
- Kosher salt
- Sesame oil
- Heat a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl in the oil, add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add the pea tips and a sprinkling of kosher salt. Stir-fry for several minutes, until wilted. If things seem dry, splash in water to facilitate cooking.
- The pea tips are done when they’re about a third of their original volume. Dish out to a serving plate. Drizzle on some sesame oil.
More simply delicious vegetable sides: