During a recent walk through the produce section of the Buford Highway Farmers Market I ran into two women who appeared to be on their first trip through the market.
They were obviously overwhelmed by the array of unfamiliar greenery laid out before them – gailan, a-choy, yo tsai, sherlion, kohlrabi, epazote – and they seemed relieved when they finally identified something familiar – ginger. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was in fact galangal that they had discovered – not ginger…
We’ve all been there – so I’m starting a series to shed a little light on some of the ingredients that many of you probably have tasted (or will) as you explore ethnic cuisines, but that you may not recognize when you encounter them in the market.
Nira is known by many names:
- Nira (Japan)
- Jiǔcài (China)
- Buchu (Korea)
- Hẹ (Vietnam)
- Garlic Chive, Chinese Chive (other parts of the world)
What is it?
Nira, as you can see from the photos, is a plant… it’s in the Allium genus (same as garlic), with long flat leaves, 10-15 inches long. It’s easy to grow – my first exposure to it was when I found it growing wild in the backyard of my house. It’s even easier to harvest (with scissors), and like grass, it grows back after cutting.
In the market, you’ll find as many as three types of nira:
Nira is dark green.
Yellow or golden nira is… yellow. It’s actually etoliated – after cutting the green leaves, the plants are covered and allowed to re-sprout in the dark – similar to white asparagus.
Hananira or Chive Flower has the flower bud at the top of the stalk.
What does it taste/smell like?
Hm… This is a similar dilemma to the one I have with fish sauce (nước mắm) – you may love or hate the smell, but it adds a character to foods that is impossible to get any other way. Pungent, as obtuse as that is, is the best way to describe the smell. The flavor is more that of a garlicky onion and much stronger than a regular chive.
What can I do with it?
You’ve probably eaten it before – nira is a common ingredient in Asian dumplings: Chinese jiaozi (being made in the photos), Japanese gyoza and Korean mandoo. Chinese green onion pancakes, cōng yóu bǐng (蔥油餅), can be made with nira instead of green onions. These are called jiǔcài you bing (韭菜油饼). Nira-reba is a Japanese dish, where liver is stir fried with nira. Supposedly, this dish will give you “stamina”. Another common Chinese preparation is to scramble eggs with nira (a lot of nira). In the book Oriental Vegetables, Joy Larkcom mentions a tempura preparation, where the leaves are wrapped into bundles, dipped in batter and deep-fried.
How do I store it?
This is important, as once cut, nira does not keep well. Wrap it with damp paper towels and store in the vegetable drawer for no more than 2-3 days (you’ll know when it’s time to go…)
So what’s baffling you in the markets? There’s lot’s more to come in this series, but let me know – I’ll try to push requests to the top of the heap.