Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bac Ha Vegetable: About, How to Eat & Recipe Ideas

Bac Ha: Vegetable Superstar

With the massive universe of vegetables now available in most communities, it's time to venture outside of your food galaxy and do some interstellar travel. Set aside the staid vegetables of your mother's cupboards and live a little! Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

Enter the fleshy vegetable known asbạc hà in southern Vietnam, also known as "dọc mùng"in northern Vietnam, "taro stem," "to-ran" (Korean), "giant elephant ear," "Colocasia gigantea,""Indian Taro," and "hasu-imo" in Japan. (Note: In northern Vietnam, bạc hà refers to a minty herb). You can usually find these large, porous stems shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam tray in a pan-asian grocery near you. Where I live, I was able to find these nice specimens at the Ranch 99 Market.

Sometimes you can even find bac ha at Walmart. But don't buy it there! I've heard that the quality is bad, and that they may even be sourcing a related, but different, kind of plant and incorrectly labeling it.

If any of this has piqued your interest, read on to learn more, including how to cook bạc hà, and recipe ideas (including one I made that was super tasty!).

Photo of Bac Ha stems

About Bac Ha

Bac ha is the fleshy stem of the elephant ear plant. The stems themselves can be quite large -- as thick as your forearm. Typically, they're smaller, though: wrist-thickness or smaller.

The stems themselves are extremely lightweight, akin to styrofoam. This is because the stems are made of a sponge-like plant structure. It's truly unlike most other vegetables in this respect. Texture is bac ha's most prominent attribute; In terms of taste, it doesn't have much flavor.

This spongey vegetable interior makes bac ha perfect for soups: the web-like structures trap broth. When you pull a piece of bac ha out of your soup and bite into it, it's full of delicious broth. It's similar to how delicious it is to dip bread into your soup. For this reason, a common use of bac ha is to make a sour vietnamese soup (known as cahn chua), or to add it to miso soup.

You may have heard of the elephant ear plant before; it's known as the "taro plant" and some people eat taro root, and it is sometimes grown as an ornamental landscaping plant in their backyards. Don't just go out and try eating your landscaping, though! There are a wide variety of elephant ear plants that are cultivated for different purposes, from root development, to stem development, to landscaping use. Not all varieties are edible. Best to stick with what you find in stores.

Selection and Storage

Choose bac ha that is firm, green, has no bruises or blemishes, and was recently packaged (check the date on the package). It is best if it's wrapped in plastic (to preserve moisture) and in a refrigerated/cooled produce area. Keep bac ha in the refrigerator for up to a week.

How to Cook Bac Ha

Let's start with the important stuff: don't eat the stems raw. They contain calcium oxalate, which can cause skin irritation and itching *inside* your mouth and all down your throat, among other things. These compounds (luckily) break down with proper cooking.

So then, what is proper cooking? To be entirely safe:
  1. Wash stems
  2. Lightly oil your hands (to protect them from potential itching) or wear food preparation gloves
  3. Peel the thin outer layer of green skin off of the vegetable. To do so, grab hold of a sliver of the skin at the end of the stalk, and pull. It should peel off easily.
  4. Slice the stalk or cut it into 1-inch cubes.
  5. Then, either boil for 5 minutes before adding it to your recipe OR massage salt into the pieces, squeezing moisture out of the taro stem until you're left with 1/3 of the original volume. Rinse and drain.
  6. Add to recipe and cook thoroughly.

I'll let you know, though, that I left the green skin on, did not oil my hands or wear plastic gloves, sliced it up, and just was sure to boil it thoroughly in the soup recipe I made. No irritation occurred. So, be as risk-averse as you prefer.

Using Home-Grown Bac Ha

The following blog has a wealth of photos and information from a man who grows and cooks with his own bac ha in Hawai'i. Check it out if you're interested in a close-up look at growing taro root and harvesting the stems and leaves: http://raygrogan2-ivil.tripod.com/tarogrowcookeat/id9.html

Bac Ha Recipe Ideas:

Bac Ha is traditionally used in a specific type of Vietnamese sour soup (known as canh chua) and rice vermicelli soup (known as bún), as well as an ingredient in Japanese miso soup, chanpuru, and sushi. Here are some links to recipe ideas for bac ha:

Vietnamese Bac Ha Recipes

Japanese Bac Ha (Hasu-Imo) Recipes

Indian Bac Ha (Thaalu) Recipes

Below is a photo example of a recipe I made with with my bac ha: Vegetarian Sour Vietnamese Soup.

To make the recipe, I used a traditional canh chua ca Sour Vietnamese Fish Soup recipe from Pham Fatale as a template, and also looked to the Wandering Chopsticks Shrimp and Fish canh chua recipes to make sure I was on the right track in terms of proportions, spices, and flavors.

However, I made major modifications to convert it to a vegetarian/vegan recipe. I'll describe my modified recipe in a future post and will link to it from here! I can tell you now, though, that it was a tasty, exciting new soup that I haven't tried before and haven't seen on a menu before.

I also sliced up some of the remaining bạc hà and added it to miso soup (not pictured). A tasty addition!

If you're a bac ha fiend and see that I left out your favorite recipe, give me a shout! I'd love to know about more uses!


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bengali Bottle Gourd Curry Recipe

Vegetarian Bottle Gourd (Opo Squash) Recipe

Wait...an Opo Squash Recipe?

That's right! My exciting acquisition of an Opo Squash prompted me to share info and how-to's about this culinary workhorse in my last post; In this post, I provide more detail on how to make an easy and tasty Opo Squash recipe with this fun vegetable.

After copious searching, I settled on what to make with my opo. A recipe from Rice N' Curry, Lau Doga Sukto - Bottle Gourd Stew, served as my template. I made some changes to the recipe for the sake of convenience, including swapping out hard-to-find ingredients for supermarket-handy ones. Thus adapted, I found it to be a light, tasty addition to my recipe repertoire -- a dish I'd happily make again.

Opo squash...or whatever...

This is a versatile recipe in that you can swap out the Opo Squash for another vegetable (say, zucchini or summer squash). It's okay to use whatever fresh vegetable you want, as long as it has a consistency that's similar to zucchini (the closest taste-texture twin to opo I can think of), or else just adjust the cooking time accordingly. I could imagine improvising on this with some sliced tomato in the mix. You can also use your favorite leafy greens in place of those called for in the recipe. 

"Ch Ch Ch Ch Changes..."

What changes did I make? Let's start with the greens. The recipe calls for "twigs of the bottle gourd plant." Call me an outlier, but I can't remember the last time I found myself in a field amongst thriving Opo Squash twiglets. I scratched that one off the list and replaced it with whatever leafy greens I had. I could have easily used kale, spinach, or any other leafy green. In the moment of the recipe, I used a healthy bundle of ong choy (Chinese water spinach) that I had on hand.

And that's not all, folks! The recipe also called for ghee (clarified butter). In the name of cardiovascular systems everywhere, I changed this to olive oil. Thanks to that little tweak, now it's a vegan recipe.

News flash: The last time I juiced a ginger root is never. So I nixed the "juice of fresh ginger" the recipe requested and replaced it with the more practical "minced fresh ginger." You can even use grated ginger if you have it on hand.

I also dropped the 1/2 tsp of granulated sugar called for in the recipe. Squashes in general tend to have enough of their own subtle sweetness to lend to a dish, in my opinion. Opo squash seeds, in particular, are slightly sweet and crispy (if the squash is not too ripe). So goodbye to those delicious granules, may they fulfill their culinary dreams in some future dessert.

Besides, my kitchen is a site of high-velocity cooking. This blog may make it look like an idyllic place of leisure and photogenic food. But it's a madhouse. I can pack the fridge with freshly cooked food from scratch in under two hours. All that the casual observer can perceive is a blur of apron and the motor-like whir of my spinning arms as food happens. What does it mean? It means: "Don't waste my time, you half-teaspoons of baby sugar grains that aren't even going to be tasted when they make it to the finished dish!" I opt for high-impact ingredients that get noticed. Typically that means loud spices and large quantities.

Next item. The "Bay Leaf" called for in the original recipe refers not to the bay leaf we love and know in North America as Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis), but to a different plant used frequently in Indian cuisine and also called "Bay Leaf": Indian bay leaf or malabathrum (Cinnamomum tamala), which has an aroma similar to cinnamon. I typically have some leaves of both varieties on hand, but in this case I was all out of Indian bay leaf so I substituted a pinch of ground cinnamon. Ta-da! Knowledge is flavor.

Eager to acquire obscure ingredients but loathe to acquire obscure kitchenery, I found myself not in the possession of a karahi/kadai nor of a wok. "Gasp!" you say, "How can she survive without a karahi?" I often ask myself the same question. Answer: I make do with my fancy sautee pan, and that's what I call for in the recipe below.

That concludes the major changes to the original recipe I used as Opo-inspiration. It may sound like the resulting dish is quite a bit different, but I assure you that the overall idea and taste of the dish remain unedited: only convenience has been altered -- no flavors were harmed in the process.

Enough blabbing. Let's cook!

Bengali Bottle Gourd Curry Recipe (Vegetarian, Vegan)

Serves ~4


1 bunch fresh leafy greens (your choice: kale, spinach, ong choy, bok choy, etc..)
1.5 to 2 lbs of Opo Squash/ Bottle Gourd, quartered and cut into 1/2 inch slices
4-5 whole green chilies. Serranos work well. (If you want a spicy dish, chop one up, otherwise leave all whole. If you're totally capsaicin-intolerant, use a sliced green bell pepper).
1 T olive oil
1 pinch of ground cinnamon
½ tsp turmeric powder
2 T minced fresh ginger (appx 2 inches of peeled ginger root)
2 T olive oil
1 pinch of whole fenugreek seeds (or fenugreek powder, which might be easier to find)
½ tsp black mustard seeds, freshly ground. (Not everyone has these on hand. Just skipe it if you don't have it.)
salt to taste (~1/2 to 1 tsp, for me)
A small amount of thickener of your choice to thicken the sauce: flour, corn starch, arrowroot powder, Kudzu root starch, etc. I used a few teaspoons of arrowroot powder, which thickens quickly in hot liquids, stirred into the pan at the end.
Freshly-made rice (or grain of your choice), to serve with the dish.


1. Wash and chop the leafy greens. Chop the opo squash/bottle gourd.
2. Heat a sautee pan and 1 T olive oil. Add the chopped opo squash and whole chilies.
3. Cook for a few minutes, then add chopped leafy greens.
4. Cook a minute or two longer, being sure to fold the squash over the greens so they cook.
5. Add the turmeric powder and salt, stir it in until thoroughly mixed, and then cover the pan. The salt will cause the veggies to release water into the pan, which becomes the base of the sauce for this dish.
6. Cook for 15 min, or until the squash and greens are cooked but not mushy.
7. In a frying pan or a pot large enough to hold the squash mixture, heat 2 T olive oil. Add the whole fenugreek seeds and ground mustard seeds and fry for 15 to 30 seconds (and only 10 seconds if you're using ground fenugreek) - the spices should give off a nice aroma as the fry. Add the minced ginger, and then pour the squash mixture into the oil and spice mixture. Mix well.
8. Thicken the sauce with the thickener of your choice. I always use arrowroot powder because it never clumps up or causes issues for me. If you're using arrowroot powder, add up to 1 T, mixed first in a small amount of cold water and then poured into the pan with everything else. Heat and stir constantly until the sauce is thickened. Taste and adjust salt as needed.
9. Serve with rice.
10. The original recipe made a few requests that I dutifully respected to the best of my abilities, and I humbly repeat them to you here, mostly verbatim aside from grammatical edits and my parenthetical comments:
  • Don’t add any water (aside from the small amount needed to dilute your thickener); allow the vegetables to cook in their own moisture.
  • Don’t add more turmeric than specified, this recipe has a cool white look (not a deep yellow look)
  • Don’t add any red chili, either whole or powdered (if you want more heat, chop up one of the green chilies)

Here's to variety! Please let me know if you have any questions or comments via the comments section below!