Sunday, May 7, 2017

What's in a name? The delightful mystery that is celtuce

Vice Munchies just celebrated Chinese Food Week while we were in New York, which I call auspicious timing. 

Countless great articles make their appearance here, but I particularly liked Clarissa Wei’s editorial (read it and you’ll understand why!).

My own contributions included an article called "Dividing and Conquering the Cuisines of China" on why the concept of the “eight great cuisines” just doesn’t work.

You’ll also find a really delicious lettuce recipe from China's arid regions included here that comes straight out of All Under Heaven. Enjoy!

While we were in the Big Apple, we went out with Munchies senior editor Matt Zuras to a great Henan restaurant in the Elmhurst part of Queens. 

Called Uncle Zhou, we were really impressed by how well everything was prepared, from the Daokou chicken to the sweet-and-sour fish topped with intensely thin and crispy fried pulled noodles to the fennel boiled jiaozi

Why can't we have our own great Henan restaurant in the Bay Area, I ask you? Henan was home to the ancient capital of the Chinese empire a couple of thousand years ago. By any measure of history and common sense, this should be a go-to place for delicious food. And it is, if you know about it. 

Now I know what I want from Santa Claus this year...

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Celtuce, or stem lettuce, is a particularly Chinese vegetable, one of those strange ingredients that inhabits only one part of the world for some reason, but nevertheless is so delicious that you have to wonder why no one else has yet caught on to this delightful fact. The only problem with this vegetable – aside from its limited availability in Chinese markets – seems to be that no one ever knows what to call it, either in Chinese or in English.

Celtuce is a combination of CELery and letTUCE, which makes a bit of sense, I guess. In Chinese, the proper name is generally wōsŭn 萵筍, although some areas prefer to call it wōjù 萵苣.

The leaves do indeed look a bit like lettuce, and no one really eats them with any passion other than the Taiwanese, where they call the leafy bits literally "A vegetable" (A , or A cài), and stir-fry them with lots of garlic and a dash of salt to create one of my personal favorite greens. 

Some folks say that the Taiwanese name A cài (a weird cross-pollination between English and Chinese) came about because the leaves were once used mainly as duck food, hence yācài 鴨菜 ("duck vegetable"), while other say that the name originally was wōzĭcài 窩仔菜, which more or less means “nest vegetable.” And as if that wasn’t confusing enough, I’ve seen this also referred to in English as the unhelpful “Chinese lettuce,” the odd “asparagus lettuce,” and the I-give-up “celery lettuce.”
Peel down to the jade center

But I stick with celtuce or stem lettuce, mainly these names make more sense. And this vegetable is, when you come right down to it, all about those luscious stalks (yup, in a perfect world this would be called stalk lettuce, since no stems are involved), which are phenomenally beautiful once they are peeled.

Cooks and diners love this oddly delicious vegetable mainly in Taiwan and Sichuan, which makes me think that celtuce probably was introduced to the island during the massive migrations surrounding 1949. In both places, celtuce winds up in stir-fries or blanched for quick pickles, and the flavor is both delicate and unique. It’s really hard to describe… sort of like a cross between romaine lettuce and broccoli stems and stringless celery. In short, it’s crisp and clean.

Summer is the best time to find celtuce in a Chinese market. Look for heavy stalks with their springy green leaves still attached, since they are telling you they are very fresh; older ones will have the wilted leaves trimmed off, and these can still be good, but you have to be a little more circumspect when you shop.

So, what do you look for? Try to locate stalks that are not too thick – just a little over an inch wide is ideal – and yet are the heaviest of the lot. The reason why you do this is that thicker stalks will often be hollow in the center from growing too big, and instead of pure green jade flesh there will be a pithy white gully running through the thickest part. Heavy means juicy, which means fresh, which means delicious. While you're at it, check the stalks over for gouges or other damage.
Chinese peeler

To prepare them, trim off the tops and bottoms. Those bottom ends can be rather obstinate at times, so use care when you lop them off. The skin there will often be really fibrous, too, and so you will have to use either a paring knife or a heavy-duty Chinese peeler (which has a handy knife edge), as shown on the right, to cut through the tough webbing.

As you peel off the skin, be sure to remove any of the white webbing you see, since all you want are the lovely emerald cores. And as you do this, you probably will find the stalk breaking of its own accord – that’s perfectly fine, since you will have to cut it up anyway later on. Do note that the celtuce will lose some of that intense green (okay, almost all of it) when it soaks in the pickling liquid, but will retain it during stir-fries.

This recipe is dead simple and a great introduction to the wonders of stem lettuce. If you find you love it, too, toss it into stir-fries, like the one here. Also, check out this blog post for the dried form, which is weirdly good in a totally different way.

Quick celtuce pickle
Pào wōsŭn 泡萵筍
Serves 6 to 8 as a side

4 stalks celtuce (around 2 pounds or 900 g)
Water, as needed

Pickling liquid:
½ cup (120 ml) pale rice vinegar
½ cup (120 ml) water
¼ cup (50 g) sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste


The gorgeous cores
1. Peel the stalks as directed above. Slice them into wedges of approximately the same width and length, as this will allow them all to cook to the same degree of doneness at the same time. (Most stalks can be quartered lengthwise, except for at the very top and bottom, so you can use that as your guide.) Place the celtuce in a medium saucepan, add about an inch (2 cm) water, cover the pot, place it on high heat, and quickly bring it to a full boil, tossing the vegetables often as the water heats up. As soon as the rawness is barely gone, the celtuce will still have a light crispness, sort of like barely cooked asparagus – don’t cook it beyond this point. Immediately pour out the water and rinse the celtuce under cool running water until it is at room temperature. Drain in a colander.

2. Make the pickling liquid by boiling together the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Once the sugar has dissolved, taste it and adjust the seasoning as desired. Cool the pickling liquid completely. Place the celtuce in a resealable container and pour the cooled liquid over the top, which should more or less submerge all of it. Refrigerate this for at least a few hours and preferably overnight.

3. Just before serving, arrange the drained celtuce on serving plates as desired and drizzle with chile oil. Serve chilled.


  1. Henan cuisine doesn't get widespread reception for the same reason that Appalachian cuisine doesn't. It's highly isolated and landlocked, and TBH its denizens don't get out much.

    1. Ha! I think a lot of it also has to do with the outdated notion of "eight great cuisines." But you're right, compared to many other places in China, Henan seems to have fewer emigrants than the more famous food places. Sure wish this would change!

  2. Elmhurst! That's where my brother used to live last year, and I can't remember if we ate at Uncle Zhou's, but there are some really good Chinese eateries there. He and my sister in law had a lovely time meeting you at your talk, and they enjoyed it thoroughly! Also, CELTUCE. So much love <3

    1. Your family is so wonderful and we had such a good time with them at MOCA. Wish you could have been there. And yes, Queens is fabulous, especially for its amazing Chinese restaurants. I really was tempted to move there...

  3. They still live in Queens! I'm planning a visit within the next two years; if you're ever around the area when I am, you are so, SO welcome to come eat your way down the streets with us! That's what I did in Thailand - I do not regret it in the least, despite getting a stomach ache after eating so much...