The current obsession with ramps, those wild leeks that go for a premium in farmers' markets and gourmet food stores, had me thinking about my own favorite garlick-y, leek-y vegetable: Chinese chives, or jiu cai. Though Chinese chives resemble the more recognizable chives used as herbs, the former are substantial and leafy, which places them squarely in the vegetable rather than the garnish camp. Garlicky in flavor and juicy and crisp in texture, jiu cai are commonly stir-fried or added to dumplings.
Thought to be more of a delicacy than jiu cai, Chinese yellow chives are chives that have been grown under cover without exposure to direct sunlight (hence the yellow pigment). Yellow chives are to regular jiu cai what firm tofu is to silken—the taste may be essentially the same, but the texture and flavor are far more delicate. As a third option, consider flowering chives: named for their hollow, light green stems and yellow buds, these stalks are light and crisp, though with considerably less garlicky flavor than either the green or yellow varieties.
Better Than Ramps
At the risk of incensing ramp lovers everywhere, I happen to think that Chinese chives are superior to ramps as a sautéed vegetable. Hear me out: Ramps come with a bulbous white section that's juicy, but tastes mostly like onion, whereas Chinese chives are nothing but the tender, leafy greens. If I want a sautéed dish to have the white part of leeks in it, then I'll just go with leeks or shallots. Chinese chives, on the other hand, are all about the tender and crisp leaves that, when stir-fried briefly, explode with garlicky flavor and juice.
You'll find Chinese chives at Asian markets everywhere, along with the lesser known varieties of yellow and flowering—though of course, you'll probably smell them before you see them at the stalls. One advantage that ramps have over chives is that ramps don't give off noxious fumes in their raw state.
...But Beware of the Smell
In my continuing efforts to replace the fresh air in public spaces with my own arrestingly pungent scents, my subway ride back home with Chinese chives was not without its share of amusement.
"Oh man, it smells garbage in here!" squealed one teenage girl to her friend. Then she covered her nose and turned away from me.
Though I'd never thought of chives as smelling like trashcan material, they are undeniably stinky. Put jiu cai in a room and your house will smell like nothing but chives. In any case, the adolescents remained unconvinced despite my earnest explanation that Chinese chives don't smell bad at all when cooked.
My favorite pairing for stir-fried jiu cai is eggs. Though pork is also commonly stir-fried alongside the vegetable, I think that eggs pair more elegantly with the tenderness of jiu cai. Eating a dish of pork and jiu cai will have you chewing on the meat long after the jiu cai have been masticated, but stir-fried eggs and jiu cai are equally tender. Add stir-fried jiu cai and eggs to a plate of rice cakes (nian gao) for a one-dish meal. If you have more time, try adding finely chopped jiu cai to your dumplings and wontons. Their garlicky flavor goes well with anything, and for a fraction of the price of ramps.
About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.
Seriously Asian: Chinese Chives
About This Recipe
- 6 to 8 ounces Chinese chives, any variety
- 1/4 cup cooking oil or fat
- 4 eggs
- Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and dry the chives. Cut into sections 1 inch long and set aside.
Place a wok over high heat and heat until almost smoking. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of the oil. Crack the eggs into the wok and stir around with a spatula. Add salt and pepper to taste. When the eggs are nearly cooked in large, fluffy curds (about 30 seconds), remove from the heat.
Reheat the wok over high heat and heat until almost smoking. Swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil. Toss in the chives and stir-fry for 20 seconds to a minute, depending on the type of chive. Yellow chives take the shortest amount of time. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place the eggs back into the wok and mix with the chives. Plate and serve immediately.