Oriental vegetables such as bok choy, the Chinese mustard cabbage, pea pods, and the water chestnut have entered the American culinary mainstream.
Many home cooks now routinely flavor dishes with cilantro or Chinese parsley, once considered an exotic herb.
But hidden away among the hills of North County, growers of Oriental produce grow vegetables and herbs hardly ever found outside Asian supermarkets.
One such farmer is Thai Trinh, at 19 the owner and manager of Hong Phat Farms in Vista. The young Vietnamese, a recent graduate of Vista High School, arrived in the United States in 1979 with his parents.
These days, he stands proudly amid the 12 leased acres he and his father farm in the back hills of Vista.
"This is a family farm," he explained, looking over a sea of leafy vegetables ready to be picked. "My father was a farmer in Vietnam, and my grandfather, who was Chinese, was also a farmer. In Vietnam, farms are handed down from generation to generation."
Farm workers are busy thinning the unusual herbs and vegetables that Trinh delivers daily to Asian stores in San Diego and brokers in Los Angeles.
"We started with half an acre of land, but I talked my father into acquiring more land," he said. He points to chin kang choy , a variety of Chinese cabbage particularly popular with the Taiwanese.
"You have to be born in China to understand what to with some of these vegetables," Trinh said with a laugh. "Even the Vietnamese are not familiar with them." The pak choy sum , another dark green, leafy plant is similar to bok choy. It must be cooked, however. "It can grow chest high," he said. "We grow it almost exclusively for Chinese supermarkets in Los Angeles."
Farming is a seven-day-a-week proposition for Trinh, whose fondest dream is to one day become a teacher. "I hope in a few years' time I can hire someone to do my job, so I can go back to school," he said.
Like Trinh, You Young is taking a break from his studies to operate the family farm in Fallbrook. Saturdays are busy for the Korean theology student who runs the family vegetable stand at the Vista Farmers' Market.
"My father was a farmer in Korea for 40 years," he said. "He started doing it as a hobby in the United States."
Because of his son's efforts, the business expanded to three greenhouses. The Youngs specialize in vegetables such as Korean chives, a sturdier, and stronger-tasting variety than the regular chives found in American supermarkets.
Lacy bunches of crown daisy leaves, delicate sesame leaves and tangy daikon radish are favorites of Young's Chinese and Korean customers.
Along with the unusual greens, the Youngs grow the more familiar spinach. "Our American customers love our fresh spinach," Young said.
They also love Rocky Peak Farms' baby bok choy.
In addition to sprouts, farmer Jerry Weiss of Fallbrook specializes in organically grown Oriental vegetables. "Our baby bok choy is a little more tender than the standard kind," he explains. "One variety is meng qui choi , which has a green rather than a white stem. You can chop the whole thing up in stir-frys, or use it raw in salads."
Weiss finds himself planting more and more Oriental vegetables each year. "It's like a discovery program," he said. "American consumers are looking for more items to add excitement to their home cooking because they're eating at home more frequently."
He describes Oriental broccoli as having a little sharper flavor than regular broccoli and said its flower is edible. "It's great in stir-frys," he said.
Weiss is enthusiastic about his unusual products. "Our vegetables are now placed in the organic section of most major local supermarkets," he explains. "We're hoping organic foods will become synonymous with gourmet foods."
Because of increasing demand, Rocky Peak is producing more exotic herbs, such as Chinese garlic chives, the flavorful lemon grass, an indispensable ingredient in Thai cuisine, and even edible chrysanthemums.
Chinese broccoli, or gai lohn , which has a longer stem than regular broccoli, is a good source of vitamin C and vitamin A. Picking a younger plant eliminates the need to peel the stems. It is delicious in stir-frys, among other uses. Sesame leaves can also be eaten raw in salads, or in stir-frys. They contain vitamins C, E and F, and also lecithin.
Hong Phat Farms, Vista. (619) 724-3958. Sells through brokers only.
Tae Sok You, 1402 East Mission Road, Fallbrook, CA 92028. (619) 728-8063. Fresh spinach, $1 a bag; garlic chives, 40 cents a bunch; Crown Daisy leaves, three for $1, all at Vista Farmer's Market. Varieties depend on the season.
Rocky Peak Farms, Fallbrook, CA 92028. Sells to the trade only and to major supermarkets, such as Vons, Lucky, Major, Big Bear, and most specialty supermarkets in the North County. Prices vary according to store.