`Oriental Vegetables' by English gardening writer Joy Larkcom is the real deal. For foodies like myself, the most important thing to know about the book is exactly what deal it is real. I bought it with a bunch of other books on Asian ingredients without paying attention to much about the book except for the title, being lead to it by Amazon's cleverly surfacing books related to the books you have already chose to buy. Especially do not be deceived by the very nice blurb on the cover from Alice Waters and play extra attention to the subtitle, `The Complete Guide for the Gardening Cook'.
This book is much more about gardening than it is about cooking, and it tackles the subject of gardening very, very well. It does an exceptionally good job on detailing for us the ins and outs of growing the primary subject of the book, oriental vegetables.
The very best news about this book is that it was published 14 years ago, just as commerce between the West and China and Indochina was warming up. This trade has had these 14 years to mature into something that makes the access to unusual seeds even easier. A corollary to this is the fact that the book also predates the blooming of the Internet, so most of the sources Ms. Larkcom gives from the UK, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan will probably be joined by others and be themselves more accessible.
Ms. Larkcom began her inquiry into her subject already an expert on growing vegetables. She enhanced her credentials by making long trips to China and Japan and by enlisting the assistance of a large stable of translators. All of this linguistic help was probably even more necessary for Oriental plants, as the systematic naming of plants in China and Japan is probably far behind that in the west, plus the fact that there are simply so many different species to deal with. I have seen in other horticultural books that China is the source of far more plant species than any comparable region on the earth. Even a cursory look at Ms. Larkcom's table of contents gives weight to this observation. This lists 77 species or groups of species by `common name'. This is substantially less than Elizabeth Schneider's approximately135 species covered in `Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini', but this book is limited to less than a quarter of the world's land mass while Schneider covers the entire world (as seen from western Europe).
If you already own Bruce Cost's classic `Oriental Ingredients', you have not touched the surface of what Larkcom's book can offer. Cost gives us the culinary and economic scoop. Ms. Larkcom focuses on the horticultural.
Ms. Larkcom's favorite subject may very well be the cabbages, as they are her first subject and she lovingly describes them as being very easy to grow in western soils and climates. In her general introduction to these brassicas, she covers climatic factors, stages of use, fitting the oriental brassicas into Western gardens, cultivation, pests and diseases, grouping the oriental brassicas, and specific hybrid brassicas. The introductory section finishes up with an excellent diagram of how oriental brassicas are related. This may do nothing to improve your salads or stir-frys, but it's great in helping to choose substitutes when one species is out of season and a related species is in full bloom.
For each individual species, Ms. Larkcom follows Bruce Cost's practice by giving the most common English name, the biological family, the two part Latin name, other common English names, plus names in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese. Even among the Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, some plants may have several different names. After this linguistic heading, there are paragraphs on background, use, characteristics, types, climate, soil, cultivation, intercropping, pests and disease, harvesting, storage, and varieties. Whew! All this information includes a culinary aspect I have simply not seen elsewhere. This is the fact that several plants go through different stages and while some stages may be commercially less desirable in western eyes, they are really quite highly prized by Oriental users.
After Brassicas, the other major groups of plants are beans, cucurbits (gourds and melons), onions, radishes, water vegetables, tubers, and herbs and wild plants. If I were to take away one plant from this book and give it a shot at growing in my back yard, it would probably be the radishes. The rich assortment of oriental radishes is in strong contrast to the variety available in even a better than average American megamart.
The biggest surprise I found was that ginger received a light coverage as an herb and its relative, galangal is not mentioned at all. I am certain this is because neither of these two plants is easy to grow in home gardens, and growing is what this book is all about. This reinforces the fact that for the foodie with a black thumb, this book needs a companion with a culinary focus to fill out one's picture of Oriental veggies.
The main body of the book dealing with individual plants is supplemented with an excellent chapter on growing techniques. I am not as familiar with the soil as I am with the stove, but from what I can see, this chapter is first rate, covering techniques which you may not find in your average Better Homes and Gardens title. This is followed by a chapter on cooking which is even better than what I saw in other books on vegetables where the emphasis was more on cooking than in this horticulturally slanted book.
The appendices to this book alone are worth the price of admission with its excellent tables of gardening terms, growing calendars, plant names, and bibliographies. While there is some danger that the references to suppliers may be out of date, I do recognize several current major players such as W. Atlee Burpee and Johnny's Selected Seeds.
If any of this interests you, this book is for you!