I have often thought of “foodie” as a recent coinage, linked to millennials and ever-changing fads like sous vide and lacto-fermentation. In fact, the descriptor appeared in 1980 and continues to evolve all these years later. During the COVID‑19 lockdowns, facing shuttered restaurants, many foodies left their kitchens and headed outdoors. According to a national survey, 17 percent of Canadians started growing their own fruits and vegetables in those years. Their reasons were as varied as hybrids of lilies: they had more time to till the soil, they had long-standing desires to move away from industrial agriculture (56 percent of new gardeners said this was an influence), or they wanted to reduce their environmental footprint (50 percent were in this camp). Whatever their reasons, they realized they needed some information.
Two books provide loads of it. Both delve into the politics of growing organically and locally, but then their routes down the garden path diverge. Rich in photography, Asian Vegetables combines shared passions for cooking and gardening with an intergenerational journey through culinary traditions. By comparison, the illustrated Medicinal Perennials to Know and Grow is a short stroll for beginners.
Many times, I’ve pondered the Asian vegetables at the Kowloon Market, near my home, where I go to buy bok choy for my version of a stir‑fry. I had no clue how to cook much of the other produce on offer — let alone how to grow it. Asian Vegetables removes some of the uncertainty through detailed instructions for the seasoned gardener like me as well as for the novice, while presenting recipes, simple to complex, for vegetables suited to the temperate northern climate. The enticing full-page photography is by Virginie Gosselin (who deserves a credit on the cover but doesn’t get one).
The book’s authors are three sisters from Montreal — the market gardener Stéphanie Wang, the family historian and musician Patricia Ho‑Yi Wang, and the nutritionist Caroline Wang — whose forebears came from China’s Guangdong province. Before immigrating to Canada, their parents and their siblings lived in Madagascar. And though the Wang sisters speak little Cantonese, they became fluent in the language of food from an early age, by eating and cooking with their extended family: “soup as a starter, a main course, at least one side vegetable, and fruit for dessert.” Their book focuses on culinary traditions through the lens of family anecdotes and cultural context.
Stéphanie Wang, in particular, has made this heritage her life’s work. An agro-ecologist, she began planting Asian vegetables at Le Rizen, her organic farm in Frelighsburg, Quebec, in 2016. Today, at roughly the same latitude as northeast China, she grows forty varieties and produces artisanal products like sauces and kimchi. For the book, she and her sisters selected fifteen individual crops: ten greens, four fruit vegetables (“a food that we cook as a vegetable but that is, botanically speaking, the fruit of its plant”), and one herb. Currently, Stéphanie is the sole market gardener of Asian vegetables in the province; she hopes this book may encourage others to start.
The bulk of Asian Vegetables contains specifics on growing and cooking each selection, aptly arranged by season. Winter is a fallow time for resting, planning, preparing, and indoor sowing, of course. Spring is much more labour intensive. This section of the book is abundant in helpful advice on everything from nourishing the soil to selecting equipment, from shielding crops against the elements to storing your bounty. When I began gardening, I had to cull this sort of know‑how from multiple volumes and often felt more burdened than informed by the details and conflicting recommendations. The facts here are succinct and in keeping with organic practices. You may have to go elsewhere for more particulars, but the book will help you decide, for example, between drip and sprinkle irrigation systems.
After a practical primer, it’s down to raising and cooking the cold-loving, nutrient-rich leafy greens of spring, such as choy sum and gai lan. Novices can likely save years of trial and error by following Stéphanie’s tutelage. A cornucopia of guidance is given for each vegetable, including its history and botanical background, nutritional value, and preparation techniques. The forty recipes — some from the authors and their relatives, others from customers, friends, and local chefs — vary in complexity. There’s Uncle Jean’s Bok Choy and Chicken Soup, with only four steps, as well as Gaspé Turbot, Lobster, and Tatsoi with XO Sauce, a culinary feat from the Montreal chef Jérémie Bastien, which takes two hours to prepare. (This recipe is followed by a story of a relative who built a cement water basin to raise and cleanse fish in Madagascar.) Later on, Uncle Jean, a former chef himself, reappears to explain why he’s comfortable with some vagueness in cooking (“a few pieces of,” “a little,” or “a tiny bit”) and how he’s still seeking perfection in some recipes at eighty years of age. Now that’s the epitome of a foodie.
Asian Vegetables is a feast for anyone interested in learning more about food, culture, and history. Three generations, fifteen vegetables, forty recipes, and plenty of stories make for one extraordinarily informative book.
Medicinal Perennials to Know and Grow couldn’t be more different in appearance and aim. It’s a beginner’s introduction to growing, using, enjoying, and benefiting from herbs. With charming watercolour illustrations, the book is a reissue of a previously self-published title that was half as long. This edition is still only 120 pages, with succinct narratives on forty-seven medicinal perennials. (To put that in context, there are an estimated 17,810 species worldwide.) Plenty more comprehensive books can be found, notably Andrew Chevallier’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, but this slim volume is a good place to start.
The two authors are experts. Since 1986, Dan Jason has operated Salt Spring Seeds, in British Columbia, which specializes in heritage and heirloom varieties. He’s also an outspoken critic of genetically modified seeds and an educator on sustainable organic gardening and farming. Rupert Adams grows herbs and sells tinctures through his business, Kairos Botanicals, a hundred kilometres east of Vancouver in Agassiz. Both authors are transparent about their commercial interests and their ethos, including growing organically. Judging from the number of exclamation marks in their book, they are certainly passionate about perennials.
Jason and Adams’s conversational style makes for surprisingly interesting reading, as do the fascinating snippets of folk knowledge they include: Catnip is an old home remedy for nightmares. Hyssop was pressed into psalm books and sniffed during services as an aid to staying awake. Betony was planted in churchyards and worn around the neck “to drive away ghosts, demons and despair!” There are expert tips: fennel inhibits the growth of nearby plants. And surprising facts: the relaxing effect of beer results from the alcohol content and from hops. There are even poetic attempts: dandelion flowers are “perfect little puffs of sunshine.”
While the passages on growing these plants include useful pointers for siting and propagation, the caveats regarding their applications are less straightforward. Medicinal Perennials to Know and Grow opens with a disclaimer: its contents are for information only and “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any condition or disease.” Readers are advised to consult a health care provider before using medicinal plants. But then the introduction states that these perennials “have extremely long histories of safe use,” such as helping to heal wounds, changing blood pressure, and reversing inflammation. Nearly all the entries include claims about health benefits. Some note potential dangers (St. John’s wort, for example, can reduce the effectiveness of some medications, including birth control pills), but others lack specifics that could be valuable for would‑be growers. Pasque flowers need to be “treated with great respect,” but what exactly does that mean? Many of these plants are dangerous, even toxic, and readers deserve more consistent contextualization.
Nonetheless, both books will allow armchair gardeners to explore new paths this winter, while perhaps plotting springtime forays. There’s plenty of time yet to order seeds.
Barbara Sibbald is a journalist and fiction writer. She gardens in Ottawa.