It never dawned on me that bitter greens tasted bad until I was invited to stay for dinner at a friend's house when I was nine. Her brother threw a tantrum over having to eat chopped spinach. I watched it clunk out from inside a can and it formed a similar warm pile on his plate. While I found it mushy, I didn't gag they way he did. I was more surprised that there was no chewing involved and that I was using a fork. I rarely ate soft vegetables and didn't know they could be soft. My mother always pinched leafy green stalks with her chopsticks into my rice bowl each night and while I never loved them, I didn't mind the taste. I was sold on the cuteness of eating sweet, tender flower buds from bok choy hearts and other greens that appeared every night for supper in suburban New Jersey.
In 2009 I moved to Beijing after nearly a decade of cooking in restaurant kitchens that later evolved into magazine test kitchens as a food editor. China presented few options in my search for organic farmers at a time when alarming food safety violations headlined the news. I found good farmers and collaborated with them to feed children at a bilingual elementary school in suburban Beijing, unexpectedly becoming a glorified lunch lady with a mission. I scoured the countryside for vegetables safely grown without any chemicals. As a freelance food writer, I went far up to the mountains in Yunnan province for travel stories and took excursions to find the best cured hams, purchasing them for the lunches, using the fat to flavor the oil that stir-fried some of those greens and the aged ham for fried rice and soups. Our uncertified organic produce was limited to less than a dozen varieties of leafy greens, about the same amount I'd find in a New York supermarket, whereas on any given day at any local market, I could easily choose from at least 20 types of vegetables in Beijing.
I created a lunch menu that offered traditional regional Chinese fare and an international option to expose the kids to different foods, opening their minds and palates. There was always a shared vegetable—more often than not, leafy greens stir-fried in giant woks. I noticed that a majority of Chinese kids rarely chose vegetables, but when put on their plates, the vegetables were often eaten with diligence, whereas most Caucasian kids bee-lined to the compost bin and scraped the vegetables off their plates before sitting down to eat. It was worth losing some vegetables for the win of the Chinese kids who would eat them.
To me, Chinese children are generally more obedient, but I realized that no child will eat something they don't like without some kind of whinging. Chinese children aren't coddled to eat, and many in this generation have living grandparents who survived bitter times of famine. It dawned on me that in my ninth year of living in China, I've never seen a children's menu in a Chinese restaurant, that Chinese parents don't ask their children what they want for dinner and, except for babies, they don't make special meals for them, either. Chinese children generally eat the same food as adults with the exception of chilies and prickly things like fish bones, which is how I grew up.
I recently visited my mother's childhood home in Zhongshan just outside Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong (Canton) province in southern China. The temperate climate allows for a year-round growing season blessed by the abundance from the Pearl River Delta. Cantonese food, known as yue cai, is one of China's great eight cuisines and the preeminent of the four culinary master provinces. Often regarded as the most sophisticated of all traditional Chinese cuisines, it is what France is to European cooking in terms of culinary mastery, and it has produced the best chefs. Natural delicate flavors are its strength, using simple techniques like steaming and quick, but gentle stir-fries.
Bitter is a core flavor in Chinese cuisine (along with salty, sweet, sour, and hot) and often associated with medicinal health. Bitter happens regularly in Chinese vegetables. They can be medicinal and healing in soups and decoctions, but leafy greens are most often stir-fried in a wok over high flames preserving their nutrients and retaining the all-important crisp-tender texture. A pinch of sugar, salt, and a drizzle of oil are the minimum requirements for extraordinary vegetable cookery available as qing chao on any restaurant menu. Seasonal vegetables (all green leafy varieties) are most often also offered in two other styles: gao tang, poached in superior broth, and furu, which I did not grow up with but love because I'm blown away by the big flavors from fermented tofu that make a rich sauce.
In a local morning market in Guangzhou, I lost count at 25 types of incredibly fresh leafy greens, not including the squashes, gourds, and root vegetables. On a recent visit to Queens, New York, in the heart of Flushing where a flourishing Chinese community thrives, the variety was a less exciting but still more variable than a standard supermarket—maybe not 25 types of greens, but enough for everyone, especially the local Chinese who always need their daily vegetables.