As the Lunar New Year approaches, memories of Beijing fill my kitchen.
It was the early ’80s, before the Chinese capital exploded into a glittering metropolis scraping the sky.
“Have you eaten?” my boss at the radio station would ask, a standard greeting in a country obsessed with food.
Back then, long cabbages dried on low tiled roofs, farmers dumped piles of giant winter melons on every street corner and tethered chickens stared from the backs of bicycles.
Though they probably jump in their cars now rather than taking the train, I’m sure my former colleagues will still rush home on Jan. 31, to eat homemade dumplings with their families and set off fireworks to welcome the Year of the Horse.
Here at home, supermarkets are flying red Chinese New Year banners and importing extra Asian produce for the occasion, from dragon fruit and exclusive mandarin orange varieties to fresh bamboo shoots and long beans.
I love these beans — about 20 inches (50 cm.) long and sold in bundles — because they’re easy to use and have a wonderful chewy texture and stronger flavour than familiar green beans.
The Chinese say they represent longevity, which makes them popular during New Year celebrations.
Culinary adventurer and cookbook author Naomi Duguid says she’ll happily choose long beans over regular beans. During the summer she grows them in her Toronto backyard.
“They hold their shape really well in a salad and they’re great for a stir-fry,” says Duguid, whose next cookbook will explore the world of Persian cuisine.
Given a choice of light or dark green beans, she prefers the ones with a darker colour.
“The pale beans coming from China are often tough and tired-looking by the time they reach us,” she says, “but I usually just choose whatever looks firmer and crisper.”
Boiled, steamed, stir-fried or braised, these inexpensive beans add an Asian touch to any meal. They may even bring you luck for the New Year.
Plant a few dried peas in the spring and you’ll soon have a prolific vine with white and blue flowers. The long green or purple beans grow two to a stem. Give them something to climb on so they grow long and straight.
Buy & Store:
- Long beans, beloved in many parts of the world, are available year-round in Asian markets and at No Frills. During Chinese New Year you should also find them at Real Canadian Superstores, Loblaws and Zehrs.
- Choose crisp, pencil-thin lengths, ignoring rusty, yellow or limp bundles.
- Some people prefer darker green beans for their colour, while others find the lighter green variety sweeter and more tender.
- Store in a plastic bag and use as soon as possible.
- One long bean equals about five regular green beans.
- Line up a bunch, trim off the stem end and cut into 2-inch (5 cm.) lengths, straight or on the diagonal.
- For a moist bean with more of an asparagus flavour and vibrant colour, blanch whole in boiling water for 3 minutes. Chill immediately in ice water; drain and pat dry. Refrigerate up to a day before cutting into lengths for a recipe.
- For a more dense, chewy texture and nutty flavour, stir-fry with a little oil until shrivelled, brown and tender.
- Long beans stand up well to strong, rich flavours like fish sauce, salted black beans, garlic, chili sauce and smoked meat.
- Braise with unctuous pork belly.
- Tie in a loose knot, dip in tempura batter and deep-fry.
- Add to vegetable or meat stews with a spicy, garlic/onion or coconut milk base and simmer 20 minutes or more.
1/2 lb. (225 g) regular ground pork or beef
3 tbsp (45 mL) soy sauce
1 tbsp (15 mL) brown sugar
2 tbsp (30 mL) whisky or brandy
1 lb. (454 g) long beans
2 medium onions, halved lengthwise, sliced crosswise
2-1/2 tbsp (35 mL) mild vegetable oil
1 tbsp (15 mL) minced fresh ginger
1/2 tsp (2 mL) chili flakes (or to taste)
1/2 tsp (2 mL) fennel seeds, chopped or crushed
Blend meat well with 1 tbsp (15 mL) soy sauce. In a separate bowl, combine remaining 2 tbsp (30 mL) soy sauce with sugar and whisky.
Heat a large wok or heavy pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 tbsp (15 mL) oil then add beans, stir-frying about 5 minutes until wrinkled, lightly brown and tender. Transfer to a dish.
Add another 1 tbsp (15 mL) oil to wok. Toss in onions and cook until limp and brown, about 5 minutes. Add to beans.
Add remaining 1/2 tbsp (5 mL) oil to wok. Stir-fry meat, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until it loses its pink colour. Add ginger, chili and fennel seeds and cook another minute. Stir in soy sauce mixture, then reserved beans and onions. Toss a few minutes longer to mix well. Serve hot over rice.
Makes 3 to 4 main-course servings.