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Cooking Like Your Grandma

When I first started gardening, Nin, my Chinese mother-in-law, brought me seeds. Winter melon. Long, sweet cucumbers, snow peas, black beans.

And something she calls “han toi.”

Years later I have figured out that han toi is probably something like quinoa. But she planted it for the dark red bitter greens, which give a vegetarian stir-fry an umami denseness. What I also remember about it is that the large fragile seed heads allowed it to take over not only the garden, but the neighborhood. A couple of years after planting it, it started showing up in the neighbors’ yards, and the alley, and the parkway.

Sorry, Rogers Park. You can eat that stuff! Really!

Free and Nin-nin(Nin’s mother-in-law and son in Hong Kong)

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she brought the original seeds with her from China nearly 70 years ago. I’ve never found quite those winter melons—a more watery, sweet, thin-skinned version of bitter melon than I can find in stores or commercial seed packets. The same with those cucumbers, although Armenian cukes come close.

This is one of the problems with recreating a truly authentic flavor with heritage cooking. So much of that patrimony is lost—to assimilation, to age (she stopped gardening because she got too frail), to what I think of as “second generation syndrome” where the children and grandchildren don’t quite see what is going to happen to that home culture as they become “American.”

Lately, we are starting to understand the true nature of the American melting pot: that it’s really more of a stew, with many distinct flavors. With this comes a movement to recover these lost seeds, by asking gardening mothers to preserve some for us, through heritage collections like Kitazawa Seeds and the African American collection at Landreth Seeds. It was one of the thrills of my life when I found “luo bok”—a type of daikon—at Kitazawa.

With YiaYia(The author with her grandmother)

Because another problem with old country cooking is dialect. Nin calls these vegetables by the dialect from her Chinese village from before the war (that’s WW2). I have the problem on the other side of my family as well, with a Greek chicken stew that I have never found quite the way my Turkish-Greek grandmother makes it, or called what she calls it.

I dropped the ball—having to rotate out Nin’s melons and cukes, I let that seed heritage die. But as cooks start to reinvigorate heritage cuisines, gardeners are stepping up to the plate and growing the heritage plants.

And I’ll just bet I can find some han toi still producing seeds in some corner of my neighborhood.

Want to learn more about gardening and cooking with heritage seeds and ingredients? Go here to see all of our upcoming classes.