“Excuse me? Hi, yes, thank you. I know it’s been a while since my last visit, but I don’t see the Chengdu-style fava beans on the menu. Am I looking in the wrong section?”
Spoiler alert: I was not looking in the wrong section. Those supple pods bathed in fiery red oil, kissed by the heat of a blazing wok, were gone. In light of all the new, exciting eateries opening up everyday, few spots warrant repeat visits whenever I return to my hometown on the east coast, but Shu always drew me back in no matter how brief the trip, for another round of those inimitable fava beans. Now, bereft of my essential staple, I scrambled to amend my order. What could possibly take the place of this rare delicacy?
Not one to play it safe, naturally, my eyes drift to the most unusual option I can find. Vegetarian chicken with lettuce. Lettuce? Really? Described merely as an entree containing peppers, wood ear mushrooms, and scallion in a white garlic sauce, I pressed the waiter for details, to no avail. Not even Google translate could help, alternately suggesting that the Chinese characters might be indicating a type of celery, or asparagus, or an unidentified stem. It was perfectly peculiar.
Thus, I accidentally discovered celtuce, the greatest uncelebrated Asian vegetable to take root in Chinatown. The entire thing can be eaten, but is often sold with the leaves separated from its white stems. More versatile than your average tuber, it can be eaten raw, with a crisp texture similar to jicama or water chestnuts, or cooked, be it steamed, boiled, pickled, grilled, roasted, or sauteed, yielding a more tender bite. The flavor is mild but subtly nutty, with a slight woodsy, smoky piquancy, almost reminiscent of broccoli stem or kohlrabi.
Celtuce is almost too versatile, making it hard to narrow down the options for preparation at home. After much deliberation, I landed on a simple dish that is equally adaptable. Keep it cold and you’ve got a refreshing salad. Give it a little saute and you’ll be enjoying a hot stir fry in minutes. Toss with pasta, like al dente bucatini or spaghetti, and it’s a whole new meal.
Simple, fresh, full of crisp seasonal produce, it could become the star of your next potluck picnic. Spring is just around the corner, no matter the weather right now! Introduce your friends to celtuce with this compelling little salad, be it hot or cold.