Dave Hames discovered tatsoi, an Asian salad green, on a trip to Hawaii a few years ago. Many of the vegetables at the farmer's markets he visited there were new to him. Southern Indiana, where he lives, doesn't offer a great variety of the foods of the world. But the taste of tatsoi inspired Hames: "I had one of those 'I can grow that' moments."
His garden now boasts several Asian greens, including mizuna, bok choy and komatsuna. All of them are easy and fast to grow, he says.
"That's one of the big appeals to me," says Hames, a blogger who has been gardening for more than three decades.
In Canada, Asian vegetables have become staples at garden centres and seed companies, thanks largely to demographics. With the number of Asian Canadians on the rise, markets are responding to suit their tastes. But the popularity of growing these veggies is hardly limited to those of Asian heritage. Gardeners of all kinds are being drawn to them thanks to the fact that many are quick and easy to grow and offer something more exotic that tomatoes and carrots.
To feed the demand, new farms that specialize in growing Asian vegetables are sprouting up, like Red Pocket Farm in Toronto.
"There's a very, very large Asian population in southwestern B.C., so obviously the things that we grow in the gardens change as the population changes," says Mark Macdonald, resident vegetable guru at West Coast Seeds, a seed company based in Delta, B.C.
And just as vegetables traditionally grown in Italy were once out of the ordinary and now for many people have become familiar, so too are Asian vegetables being embraced by a wide array of gardeners.
"Radicchio is not something so shocking any more. Arugula comes as no surprise. And now we're seeing the same thing with bok choy and some of the mustard greens," Macdonald says.
West Coast seeds no longer lists plants and seeds in its catalogue as "Asian vegetables," a change the company made about four years ago.
"It's like calling other things European vegetables," Macdonald says. "We try and group them more botanically now, because as a family of plants it's a more useful way for a gardener to look at it."
Doeman Chow, co-owner of Jade Gardens, a garden centre and greenhouse in Milton, Ont., has seen a similar demographic shift.
"With the influx of new immigrants – south Asian, Asian, West Indian – the market has grown exponentially," he says. There is now a large demand for things like bitter melon, callaloo, san choy and karela.
The appeal of such items also stems from the fact that gardeners like to try new things, and they often like to have bragging rights over their neighbours, Chow says.
"When they have a barbecue they can say, 'Look at this,' " he says.
Before you start boasting, however, think of temperature.
"There's a very clear distinction between the warm-season and the cool-season crops," Macdonald says.
Mustard greens and bok choy, for example, will go to seed when warm weather arrives.
"Don't bother growing them in the summer time," Macdonald says. But vegetables like gourds and melons from Chinese cultures will grow very well in the warm season, he adds.
And while some crops are more difficult to grow than others, there are many Asian greens that are easy to grow, Hames says.
"You can take a seed of mizuna and go from seed to plate in 60 days," he says of the pepper green, also known as Japanese mustard. "You can use them at the baby stage, you can use them at the mature stage. You can harvest a few leaves. You can harvest a whole plant. They're pretty versatile."
Growing Asian vegetables is a simple sell, Hames says. "The appeal of something new, something a little exotic, is always there. And if you throw in easy and quick, that doesn't hurt either," he says.