Sunday, June 22, 2008


It's more or less a cliché for travelers to the East to report back on the exotic and unpalatable things they've eaten--last night, for instance, I heard about a Korean custom of eating live octopodes, and the apparently nonfictional Chinese consumption of live monkey brains. I heard about these from eyewitnesses and diners, who did their best to make clear they were not pulling my leg. But I want to report on a less exciting dish, the mysterious vegetable jielan. Among the students of the HBA program, this vegetable gets ordered at almost every meal (I just finished a plate of it myself). But what is the jielan? The shaft of the plant resembles asparagus in appearance and taste, but instead of coming to a point like an asparagus shoot, the jielan splits into two or three narrow branches that end in spinachlike leaves. The plant's name is equally mysterious. It's written with 芥 jiè, meaning "mustard," and 兰 lán, meaning "orchid." But why a plant that looks like a cross of asparagus and spinach should be called the Mustard Orchid more or less defies explanation. Nevertheless jielan is on the menu to stay. When I get back to New Haven, I'll be sure to check the Asian markets to see if I can buy it on the other side of the world as well.

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