My father loves to garden and my mother loves to cook. I enjoy
both as they pretty much go hand in hand. However, I have to admit that I
pretty much neglected my garden for most of last year. We hired a nice man
named Ricardo to help us keep things tidy but his construction skills were
underutilized by the simple tasks that we asked of him: weeding, trimming, and
spreading mulch. He went on vacation, promising to check in with us when he
returned. Alas, he never called. We got the message. Ricardo let us go as
That said, my husband and I realized that we needed to
reclaim our yard ourselves, like we used to back in … 2011! We spent a couple
of weekends filling our greencycle bin and then I attacked my little vegetable
garden. It’s nothing fancy, just about 4 feet by 8 feet wide and constructed as
a raised bed when we redid our backyard. Every year I plant Asian herbs and a
few summer vegetables. After preparing the bed, I went shopping for plants. Isn’t
shopping the reward for lots of hard work?
Finding starters for Vietnamese herbs and other Asian
aromatics is not as difficult as it used to be. Over the years, I developed a
list of places that I hit to source plants. This time of year, you never know
what you’ll find at:
Local nurseries and
home improvement centers – I’ve found the darnest plants at our
independent, local nurseries as well as places like Home Depot and Lowes. With
the large big box stores, it helps to shop at one located in an area with a sizeable
Asian community. I bought a Thai Kaffir (Makrut) lime tree at Home Depot twelve
years ago. The Chinese garlic chives purchased 8 years before continues to be a
stalwart, volunteering in various places.
People who garden love to tinker and try new plants and this
year, I was rewarded by lots of chile plants. They seem to be hot these days. (Ha.)
I basically shop by name – like Thai Dragon and Super Chile, then I read the
fine print to see whether or not they’re actually hot. Some, despite their
Asian provenance, lack spicy heat. This year, I planted 5 kinds of chiles just
to see what would happen. We lack consistent hot temps in coastal Northern
California so my back up is buying chiles from the Hmong farmers and freezing
them for the long haul.
Note that common herbs such as mint and even sorrel are employed
in Asian cooking. Those seedlings may be available at mainstream nurseries and
garden supply shops.
Farmers’ markets –
Small nurseries sell starter plants at our farmers’ markets, and I mine their
stalls for interesting plants. In Santa Cruz, for example, Upstarts Organic Seedlings
always has new varieties to explore.
Last weekend, I chat with Sarah, the
owner, about growing Southeast Asian long chiles and she suggested trying Joe’s
Long Cayenne. She also had starters for rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), Thai
purple basil (rau hung que) and Mrs. Burns basil, which she said seems to be
easier to grow in our climate than Thai lime basil. I’ve had problems with Thai
lime basil so I’m switching to Mrs. Burns. I’ll keep checking back with Sarah
because later on this season, she’ll have Thai holy basil.
Asian Markets –
One of my favorite places to source Vietnamese herbs is a tiny market in San
Jose called Thien Thanh. The man who tends to the makeshift nursery speaks
little but his plants are always healthy.
My Vietnamese balm (rau kinh gioi) didn’t reseed this year
so I started with a new plant. I always need a new purple perilla (rau tia to,
an earthier kin of Japanese shiso). He promised me that the black chile plant
was spicy hot so I bought one. The fourth plant I purchased from him was a rice
paddy herb (rau om), that I have to keep
in a plastic bag where things will sweat to mimic super humid growing
conditions. Prices are not marked but I was charged about $4 or $5 for each. What
a deal. What a steal!
Indian grocery stores are also a great source of plants.
Five years ago, I bought a curry leaf plant for [gulp] $35 from Bharat Bazaar, a
somewhat sad Indian market in Santa Clara that happened to sell the plant. The
Indian customers asked me why I was buying it because the market sold the
leaves by the bags for about $2. I was curious, I said, and want a super fresh
supply at my home. The $35 investment was a baby, no taller than 12 inches, but
look at it now – a bona fide little tree on my patio.
Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish
Market is an excellent source for Japanese seedlings, as well as seafood
and groceries. The market displays the plants right outside the doorway.
Eggplant, shishito peppers, various kinds of shiso, are among the seedlings I’ve
seen there. They often sell Asian seed packets too.
You don’t need much space to cultivate a few herbs to
enhance your cooking. Yes, you can buy the stuff but growing even a tiny bit of
your own food is immensely rewarding and tasty to boot.