Green beans that grow a yard long and also come in purple; melons that look like spiny cucumbers and when ripe turn bright orange, with huge pomegranate-red seeds; squash that can be eaten like zucchini when it’s young or used as a bath sponge later -- can this really be a farm in Fresno?
That is where we are, and yard-long beans, bitter melon and loofah are growing in profusion, along with gai lan, daikon, eggplants of every color and shape, and exotic mints, basils and other herbs. So are tender green shoots of pea plants and ong choy (water spinach).
As America has fallen in love with the flavors of Asian cooking, ingredients that once had to be searched out in the markets and restaurants of ethnic neighborhoods are now showing up in the mainstream -- at farmers markets, supermarkets and even chain restaurants.
Fresno County is the epicenter of this revolution, and immigrant Laotian farmers -- refugees from the CIA’s “secret war” against the Communists in the 1970s -- are the ones who started it.
They began by growing a few things that gave them a taste of the homeland they were driven from, and wound up with a booming business supplying our ever-increasing fascination with these new flavors.
The category that the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office calls “Oriental vegetables” accounted for $10.3 million in sales in 2003, up from $7.3 million the year before. There are more than 700 Asian-owned family farms in Fresno County and roughly 90% of them are Laotian.
Radio farm reports, that staple of rural life, are now broadcast all over the Central Valley in Hmong and Lao by Michael Yang, a program representative for the University of California’s Cooperative Extension Service and a Hmong immigrant.
So far the star of the Laotian farming community is Cherta Farms, owned by the Lee family. Started by two Hmong brothers growing cherry tomatoes, it today supplies more than 150 produce items. The Lees own downtown Fresno’s historic wholesale fruit and produce building, a gigantic brick shipping facility that was built in 1903. Huge, refrigerated rooms that once held the county’s wealth of grapes and peaches are now stacked with cases of loofah squash and Thai eggplant.
Most Laotian farmers have not been as successful. Poverty is endemic, with many farmers barely scratching out a living, farming tiny plots shoehorned into the gaps between the new housing developments in Fresno’s booming suburban fringe. Though these families grew vegetables for generations in Laos, they still need to learn the fundamentals of farming in America -- how to use chemicals safely and how to drive a tractor straight.
“Farming here is very different than in Laos,” says UC’s Yang. “There, it’s basically just slash-and-burn agriculture. You clear a field, plant it and harvest it and then move on to the next one. There’s no machinery, there’s no pesticides. Anything that needs to be done, you do it by hand. There’s no irrigation -- you just wait for the next monsoon.”
Helping Laotians adapt
Yang’s job is to help Laotians make the transition. A short and slightly stocky man with a quiet, soft-spoken demeanor, he seems much like any other county extension agent except that when he steps into the sun, he pulls on not a baseball cap, with a seed company logo, but a conical straw hat.
Yang’s family immigrated in 1980, when he was 8 years old. His father, like many Hmongs, was a farmer who had been recruited by the CIA to help fight the Communists in the mountains of Laos.
When the Americans pulled out, the Communists took over and his father was killed. As the oldest son, it fell to Michael to help guide his mother and brothers and sisters through the jungle, evading the Communist soldiers, to Thailand and safety in the relocation camps.
At one point he was bitten by a 2-foot-long centipede and was certain he was going to die. He asked his mother to leave him behind, but she insisted on carrying him on her back for three days until he could begin to walk again. (His story is typical of other Laotian immigrants. The crowded apartment complex behind Fresno’s popular Asian Village shopping mall is colloquially called Ban Vinai after the main Thai relocation camp.)
Much of Yang’s work is done at the Hmong American Community educational farm. The 20-acre farm is divided in half, with separate fields for the lowland Lao and mountain Hmong farmers. Operations manager Kevin Lee (a cousin of the Cherta Farms family who is not involved in that business) says this is because the two tribes prefer different vegetables, but there is well-documented friction between the groups as well.
Under a sweltering August sun, the Hmong side looks bare. It has just been planted with cool-weather leafy vegetables and herbs that will grow through the winter: bok choy, gai lan, water spinach and nappa cabbage as well as various kinds of mint and basil.
The Lao side is in full production. Trellises like the ones their Central Valley neighbors might use for table grapes are garlanded with bitter melon, long beans and loofah -- both the smooth and the more flavorful sharp-cornered varieties. There are rows of long, lavender Chinese eggplant and the small, round, green Thai ones.
New vegetables are added every season, some from families’ private seed collections. Indeed, some items are so obscure that Yang says they have to be sent to UC Davis for genotyping to be identified.
“As more Asians settle in the area, they look for the things they remember from their homeland,” says Yang. “Farmers try a little bit here and there. They’ll grow a couple of rows and if it goes well, they’ll save the seeds and eventually plant a couple of acres. Then that goes from farm to farm and pretty soon it’s all over the county.”
There is a financial imperative too. Even as demand for Asian ingredients grows, small farmers find it difficult to compete against larger operations in the U.S. and Mexico. So Laotian growers are constantly looking for an edge with niche products -- things the bigger farms haven’t yet discovered.
While most of this produce will go through normal distribution channels, much of it will be sold at farmers markets up and down the state. Fresno farmers travel as far as San Diego and San Francisco -- as much as six hours each way -- to sell their crops. According to the agricultural inspector’s office, of the roughly 300 certified farmers market growers in Fresno County, half are Asian.
It’s a matter of simple economics, says Kevin Lee. At wholesale, a 30-pound case of eggplant might sell for $6. At the farmers market, you might get $1 a pound. “This is another thing we have to teach,” says Lee. “In Laos, people farm only to feed their families. Here, we have to teach them to sell.”
Direct to Hmong markets
Alot of the produce will be sold at Fresno’s Hmong groceries as well. Unlike most markets, which get their fruits and vegetables from wholesalers, here there is a lot of direct selling between farmers and stores.
Outside a Hmong market one cool, early morning, an older woman in a faded cotton housedress unloads bundles of the day’s fragile pea, pumpkin and cassava shoots from the back of her station wagon. Inside, shoppers wait patiently for the delivery.
These groceries are treasure troves for fans of Asian food. Low counters are piled high with half a dozen types of eggplants; pale green, dark green and purple long beans; taro roots, stems and leaves; bags of different mixes of fresh herbs; mountain potatoes; bitter melons; fresh galangal and turmeric roots. Sichuan peppercorns, nearly vanished for the last several years after a ban on their importation (to prevent the spread of fruit canker), are sold here, sealed in household plastic bags. Not only are dried ones available, but fresh as well, packed with their leaves, which the Hmong rub on aching joints to relieve arthritis, Yang says.
While you certainly won’t find these at your local supermarket or chain restaurant today, who knows what tomorrow might bring. Baby bok choy and daikon radish, which seem to be everywhere today, were considered exotic only five years ago. Maybe soon it will be Chinese broccoli and long beans. Can fuzzy melon be far behind?
This quiet introduction of new ingredients is guerrilla marketing at its best, says Tristan Millar, director of marketing and business development for Frieda’s, the Los Alamitos-based national produce wholesaler. The company that introduced America to the kiwi fruit and the doughnut peach also has a long list of more than 30 Asian vegetables that includes arrowroot and yu choy sum, a kind of flowering mustardy green.
"[The farmers] start with their local markets and what sells well they grow more of and sell at farmers markets. When chefs try them at farmers markets, then they come to us,” says Millar.
Focused on the present
That’s tomorrow’s dream. For now, bouncing around Fresno in his dusty 1983 Toyota, the air conditioner straining against the 106-degree heat, Yang is focused on the present and helping other Laotians attain the kind of lifestyle he enjoys.
After more than 20 years in this country, he says he has finally stopped having nightmares about the jungle and his family’s exodus. “I am working now on being happy for the things I have -- for my family, my community and my job.”
Yang turns down a dirt road and stops beside a verdant plot, not more than an acre and a half. At the far end you can see the fat stalks of sugar cane. Before that you can see the elephant ear leaves of taro and what looks like tall grass.
But it’s not what Yang sees that he wants to share. Instead, it’s what he smells. That grass is rice, a specially prized variety traditionally grown in the Laotian highlands, Yang says. In another month it will be harvested and sold for a very good price to one of the local markets, or to a restaurant. Who knows? Maybe someday, you’ll even be able to buy it at your neighborhood grocery.
But now it sits baking in the Fresno sun, giving off a heavenly aroma that smells to an outsider like the very best basmati. For a Hmong, it is a more particular fragrance -- like a mother’s scent, like the future and the past combined.
Yang stands at the edge of the field, closes his eyes and breathes in, deeply, over and over again.
Know what you’re buying
From farmers market to supermarket, there’s an incredible range of Asian vegetables available today. Here’s a primer, from the familiar to the exotic. But be aware that they may be called by many different names.
Bitter melon (foo qua): This cucumber-looking squash is often described as an “acquired taste.” Its quinine-like bitterness mellows somewhat in cooking. There are two kinds: -- one smooth-skinned, the other covered with sharp spines. To prepare, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and core.
Bok choy: A heart-shaped cabbage with prominent stems, it can be steamed or cooked in soups or stir-fries. Baby bok choy, also called Shanghai bok choy, is milder and more tender.
Chinese broccoli (gai lan): A stalky, mild broccoli similar in appearance to “broccolini.” It can be steamed or cooked in stir-fries.
Chinese flowering cabbage (choy sum): One of the most beloved of the Asian greens, this has slim stalks with large green leaves and a sweetly mustard-y flavor. It can be eaten raw or quickly cooked. Yu choy sum is a close relative.
Chinese radish (lo bok): This football-shaped relative of the daikon has a milder, sweeter flavor.
Chives (nira): Frequently sold with flower bulbs at the top, Asian chives are fatter than those from the West but have a similar, pronounced onion flavor. Yellow nira are grown under cover so they never develop any green color. Their flavor is milder but more garlicky.
Chrysanthemum leaves (tung ho): Though they resemble the leaves from the familiar flower, these come from a different variety. Asian cooking teacher Bruce Cost describes the flavor perfectly as “musty-floral.” They can be eaten raw, or blanched quickly.
Daikon: A giant, pure-white radish with a sweet-hot flavor. It can be served raw or cooked.
Eggplants: The most common Asian varieties are the long, dark purple “Japanese”; long lavender “Chinese”; and small, round, marbled-green “Thai.”
Fuzzy melon (moqua): With a delicately sweet flavor like a cross between a cucumber and a summer squash, fuzzy melon gets its name from its covering of very fine hairs (it must be peeled before cooking). There are two types with similar flavors: one long and cylindrical, the other shorter and rounder.
Lemongrass: Looking like a bunch of straw, lemongrass releases its familiar haunting citrus perfume when it is smashed and cooked.
Long beans (dow gok): Though these look like super-sized green beans, they are actually more closely related to black-eyed peas, and they have a similar flavor. Frequently called “yard-long beans,” they are usually harvested at closer to 18 inches. They are fairly tender but will hold up to extended cooking in soups or stews. There are three types: pale green, dark green and vivid purple (which, sadly, turns green with cooking).
Loofah (sin qua): Silk squash, an alternate name, probably better describes this gourd. When harvested young, it has a silky texture and sweet, almost zucchini-like flavor. When left to mature, the inside turns into the familiar bath “sponge.” There are two kinds: one smooth and one with sharp, angled ridges. Most people prefer the flavor of the angled variety, though the ridges must be thoroughly peeled before cooking.
Nappa cabbage: This pale, crinkly cabbage, the size and shape of a fat head of romaine, has a sweet flavor and crisp texture.
Pea tendrils (dou miao): The very young shoots of pea plants, these have a mild, very green, sweet pea flavor. They are used raw or cooked quickly.
Water spinach (ong choy or kang kong): One of the more delicate and delicious Asian greens, both the leaves and stems are eaten. Connoisseurs recognize two kinds: one is grown in water, the other on land. The water variety, which has rounder leaves, is considered more delicate.
Winter melon (dong qua): These gourds are huge, frequently weighing more than 30 pounds, and look like blue-green boulders covered with a light frost. The flavor is mild and faintly sweet. Sometimes the outside of the melon is carved with designs and the whole thing is used as a tureen for soup.
-- Russ Parsons