Chinatown inspiration

A short walk takes our Chief Horticulturist Guy Barter on a culinary and botanical voyage across the world

Pak choiLondon’s Chinatown is only a short walk from the RHS headquarters in Westminster, and a lunchtime expedition to inspect the Southeast Asian and Chinese vegetables and herbs in the supermarkets along Gerrard Street (plus pick up a tasty lunch), is always a treat.

Some crops are too tender to be easily grown in Britain – I particularly like the pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius) that can impart a somewhat vanilla-like flavour. This palm-like plant’s leaves are used to flavour cakes and other dishes in Southeast Asia, although in truth the bottled essence is more practical.

Hardy yet exotic

Others are easy to grow outdoors. Mustard greens, pak choi and Chinese cabbages have long been popular since the pioneering work of Joy Larkcom, who indefatigably sorted out the confusing nomenclature. I have to say these are not my favourite vegetables although some find a place in my garden for autumn salads.

Flowering kale or Chinese broccoli on the other hand is an extraordinary vegetable, which I like to grow from late summer for autumn cropping when summer vegetables give over. Each plant, in my garden at least, sends up a single flowering shoot with a thick tender delicious stem and grey-green leaves.

Choi sum or flowering cabbage is also widely offered in Chinatown – I have never grown this, so I've ordered seeds this year. It looks like run-to-seed Chinese cabbage in the garden, but is tempting when prettily packed for the supermarket. Italian flowering greens or broccoli raab (cime di rapa) is fashionable now, so perhaps the time has come for choi sum.

Tricks of the trade

Like all Chinese cabbage family plants, they are martyrs to pests so I grow them under horticultural fleece, and sow direct into the ground as they don’t seem to care to be transplanted. Chinatown examples though are very succulent with much thicker stems than my crops.  I don’t quite know how they do that though.

The same goes for salad onions – even Asian cultivars sold by UK seed companies won’t produce the thick leek-like tender stems seen in Southeast Asian supermarkets, at least not in my hands.

A local Surrey farmer near Wisley specialised in producing these to perfection for London Chinese restaurants. He was understandably reluctant to share his secrets though.  Nonetheless, inspired by the Gerrard Street supermarkets, I am trying some different seeds this year.

RHS Grow Your Own

Discover all you need to know about growing your own fruit, vegetables and herbs with our Grow your own pages.

Gardeners' calendar

Find out what to do this month with our gardeners' calendar

Advice from the RHS

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.