Asparagus lettuce: Ling Chen's seven Chinese dishes

Susan Parsons
Sharing: Ling Chen harvesting asparagus lettuce in her kitchen garden.
Sharing: Ling Chen harvesting asparagus lettuce in her kitchen garden. Photo: Jamila Toderas

It was Ling Chen's O'Connor neighbours who told Food and Wine about the asparagus lettuce she had shared with them that led to us being invited to see the way she grows and cooks her food. So this week we feature a different Kitchen Garden theme in which we share with you seven dishes made using versatile asparagus lettuce or Celtuce (Lactuca sativa var. asparagina or augustana), known as wosun in south-eastern China. It is high in Vitamin C, potassium and fibre.

Ling Chen was born and raised in Nanjing/Nanking, which was the former capital of China until 1949. At the age of 16, during the Cultural Revolution, she was sent by the Government to the countryside to do farm work. She was taught how to raise crops by peasants in the villages who grew rice and vegetables for the workers and themselves. In 1993 Ling Chen came to Australia and Canberra.

The vegetable garden

In Chen's garden some rows of asparagus lettuce are being harvested and others are being left to go to seed, although Chen's seeds first came from friends in Sydney and the plant is sold at Sydney markets. The garden beds are filled with English spinach, carrots, garlic chives and Chinese celery used for cooking with meat. The soil is topped with sheep manure from Jamison market which allows water to penetrate between the soil.

Delicious: A jar of homemade pickle with asparagus lettuce stems; and a plate of carrots and pickles.
Delicious: A jar of homemade pickle with asparagus lettuce stems; and a plate of carrots and pickles. Photo: Jamila Toderas

When sharing bunches of carrots with friends, Chen ties the foliage together with a long strand of couch grass in the decorative way chives are often used to tie bouquet garni.  

Along the fence line is a row of edible Chinese garland chrysanthemums, the tips of which are picked in summer and used in soup or salads as choy suy greens. There are purple potatoes, parsley, rows of baby bok choy, purple fennel and Chinese broccoli, the seed from which is also saved.

The fruit trees

In the garden stands a very old President plum with half a trunk which still produces large fruit. A neighbour, Mark O'Connor taught Chen how to graft a few years ago and says she soon surpassed her teacher with a grafted black cherry tree and multiple grafts on a loquat. In addition to these is a nine-year-old pomegranate, a pomelo, a peach tree, a goji berry, mulberry, cumquat, a pair of healthy Nashi pears planted a decade ago, a prune plum and a feijoa. There are persimmons dai dai Maru from Jamison and nightingale from Pialligo, and a jujube or Chinese date that is important culturally in China. In a garden pond where forty goldfish flash in the water, Chen is also growing a lotus plant.

Popular: Chen's asparagus lettuce with hard tofu, carrot and bean curd.
Popular: Chen's asparagus lettuce with hard tofu, carrot and bean curd. Photo: Jamila Toderas

The meal

Chen had been cooking the dishes during the morning and her house had a special, mouth-watering smell from the asparagus lettuce. Five of us started lunch with won ton soup, the homemade little pouches filled with pork mince and asparagus lettuce leaves served in a chicken stock with snipped chives.

Black fungus, often with the descriptive word "ear" in its common names, topped shredded asparagus lettuce stem dressed in sesame oil topped with finely diced freshly harvested garlic, creating a dish of delicious contrasts. Another dish was sliced pork stir fried with crunchy asparagus lettuce stem and tossed in strips of omelette. 

Hard tofu cubes tossed with asparagus lettuce – especially popular with our vegetarian photographer Jamila Toderas – was served with a refreshing salad of tomato, cucumber, lettuce, asparagus lettuce and avocado in a French dressing. 

Variety: Chinese Sausage with rice and asparagus lettuce leaves.
Variety: Chinese Sausage with rice and asparagus lettuce leaves. Photo: Jamila Toderas

In China, people very often have rice porridge for breakfast served with pickle and this is sometimes eaten as an evening meal after a generous lunch. Chen had made a large jar of the pickle with carrot and chevron-shaped asparagus lettuce stem pieces which was served on a separate plate.

Our dessert was sliced lotus root cooked in syrup with glutinous rice and sweet dried osmanthus. The southeast region of China is known for its lotus root production. The rhizome of the perennial aquatic plant (Nelumbo nucifera) looks attractive sliced as this shows its symmetrical holes. Lotus root is starchy and high in vitamins and minerals. It was an amazing and unusual meal.

Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.