Bok Choy Isn’t ‘Exotic’

Kristyn Leach on the property of Namu Farm
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Scott Chang-Fleeman was in his second year of apprenticing at the farm and garden program at the University of California Santa Cruz when he began a project growing Chinese vegetables. Having grown up in West Los Angeles as a biracial, third-generation Chinese American, he didn’t know a lot about farming, nor did he have a strong connection to his Chinese culture. “Up until then, my farm education was centered around Eurocentric cuisine,” he says.

Looking at the rows of choy sum he’d planted, his college mentors asked him what he’d like to do with his crops. Chang-Fleeman joked about selling them to Brandon Jew, chef-owner of Mister Jiu’s, a Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. One of his mentors, who had sold produce to Jew before, picked up the phone and called him. One year later, Chang-Fleeman, 24, is now planting the first seeds of choy sum, Chinese broccoli, Shanghai bok choy, chrysanthemum greens, celtuse, Japanese scarlet turnips, and Northern Chinese shunkyo radishes on his new commercial farm, Shao Shan Farm, in Marin County, California. He sees the farm as a manifestation of his reconnection to his Chinese-American heritage, and he’s been collaborating with Jew, who plans to source produce for Mister Jiu’s from the farm.

But Chang-Fleeman doesn’t want to stop there. He wants his 1.5-acre farm to provide ethically grown heritage Asian crops for local Asian-American chefs, as well as a physical space for Asian Americans to connect their cultural identity to ideas around food sovereignty and land stewardship — topics which today have scant representation among Asian Americans.

“I’ve been in the sustainable ag community for a while and it’s a lot of the same story that gets told,” says Chang-Fleeman, who laments that Asian produce varieties are still often described as “exotic.” “When you go to conferences and look around, it’s a lot of the same people.”

“I think being able to start a farm that’s so vocal about growing Asian produce by Asian workers with the intention to sell it to Asian folks is important,” he says. “I’m not growing them for people to think that’s cool, but for Asian-American people who think it’s a link to their history.”

While tatsoi and expensive “Asian” salad mixes might be seen as trendy menu fodder today, the truth is, Asian Americans and their foodways have been essential to shaping America’s vegetable basket. Asian-American cultures tend to place a priority on fresh produce, and their immigrant communities in the U.S. have helped ensure they are accessible: from New York City’s Korean greengrocers to Hmong farmers in the Midwest to those growing the produce that would make up “California cuisine” as we know it. When Alice Waters founded Chez Panisse in 1971, often thought of as the pioneer in locally grown, ingredient-focused American cuisine, she enlisted the help of Bill Fujimoto, a third-generation Japanese American produce buyer.

Scott Chang-Fleeman grows chrysanthemum greens, choy sum, and Chinese broccoli at his Shao Shan Farm in Marin, California.

Asian Americans have been “integral to the development of American farming since the beginning of our time in the U.S.,” says Nina F. Ichikawa, interim executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute. She is currently working on a book on the topic, and has contributed a chapter to Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader. But Asian Americans’ contributions to locally grown, sustainable produce have been too long taken for granted.

Prior to the turn of the 20th century, Chinese immigrants transformed California’s Sacramento River Delta into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country. Many of the early Chinese immigrants were from the Pearl River Delta region of China, near the city of Taishan, and brought a deep agricultural knowledge and advanced irrigation techniques to the West Coast. They also had a lasting impact on the cuisine. “A lot of green vegetables were part of their cuisine,” says Ichikawa. “Things would have been different if it were a different group.”

Despite an often hostile environment toward their race, Asian-American groups continued to farm in a way that was outsize for their populations, helping to establish many vegetable-growing and fruit orchard regions. The Bing cherry, quaint as it may sound, was named after a Chinese orchard worker in Oregon who was likely deported by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After new Chinese immigrants were excluded from the country, Japanese, Filipino, Sikh, Punjabi, and Korean immigrants — many of them previously farmers — helped replace the labor shortage and expand America’s agriculture industry along the West Coast and in Hawaii. Before they were incarcerated in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Japanese Americans were producing a majority of California’s strawberries and a significant share of its popular vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and celery.

Ichikawa’s own great-grandfather came to the U.S. from Japan in 1895 and started a flower farm. He’d purchased the land before the Alien Land Law of 1913 restricted immigrants from land ownership. “It was one of the few ways we were able to hold onto something through the war,” she says of her family. Yet even while Ichikawa’s 70-year-old great-grandfather and his family lived in a concentration camp for three years, they had to continue paying taxes on their property. Not coincidentally, all of the incarceration camps themselves had working farms.

These earlier agricultural contributions from Asian Americans have largely been erased, while an overwhelmingly white back-to-the-land movement starting in the 1960s leaned into Asian vegetables and herbs (such as ginger) and food philosophies (such as Ayurvedic), and today’s “vegetable-forward” dining trends are dominated by white chefs. But farming and purveying produce with a focus on taste and quality — values that have been eschewed with the advent of large-scale, industrial agriculture in favor of pest-resistance and long shelf life — have held strong for many Asian American-run food businesses. Thanks to later groups of immigrants, a wealth of small produce farms operated by Asian Americans — notably refugees from Southeast Asian countries — still provide high-quality vegetables and herbs for their communities, as well as restaurants. That’s not to say that these farms don’t still face challenges when it comes to land ownership — and representation in the local farm-to-table movement. As history might have taught us, ensuring their survival is crucial to the health of our food system.

“If you’re going to fight climate change and produce food different from the seeds that are from Monsanto, we need to regenerate the knowledge of how to manage the diverse ecosystems,” says Mai Nguyen, a farmer in Sonoma County and chair of the Asian American Farmers Alliance, a group that includes Chang-Fleeman, Ichikawa and 20 other individuals and 10 farms. “And those seeds which are largely held by people of color around the world.” Nguyen says that the sustainable food community needs to step up its efforts to help ensure farmers of color have the resources to succeed and do so while retaining their agricultural roots.

“When refugees first arrive, they tend to farm without chemicals, and it’s not until they face the pressures of competing in our agricultural commodity system that they’re pushed in that direction,” she says.

Nguyen grew up in San Diego to refugee parents from Vietnam, and both her grandmothers kept produce gardens and composted in their backyard. From them, she gained a holistic sense of farming as well as food as medicine. “All the research coming out related to agronomy, it was basically what my grandmother taught me,” she says.

Nguyen studied atmospheric physics at UC Berkeley before going on to work with a nonprofit refugee organization to launch a farmers market in San Diego. She noticed that Vietnamese people would line up for an hour before the market opened, and when boxes of Southeast Asian produce arrived, they would sell out in hours. Yet while focused on affordability and access, Nguyen became concerned about the ways in which the produce was grown. “If we’re going to eat food sprayed with the chemicals that were also sprayed on us to harm us, this is not really thriving,” she says.

Nguyen says that the use of chemicals in farms run by immigrant Southeast Asians is an unfortunate outcome of America’s industrialized food system. But she’s part of a small yet vocal number of Asian Americans in the food industry finding ways to practice fundamentally Asian — and sustainable — methods to grow traditionally Asian crops in the U.S.

“The basic practice of Korean natural farming is more about being place-based and not having a lot of rules, but a lot of principles,” says Kristyn Leach, the farmer of Namu Farm, a 1-acre farm in Winters, California, that provides produce exclusively for the acclaimed Korean restaurant Namu Gaji in San Francisco. She describes her farming techniques as rooted in East Asian principles, yet specific to her area in California.

Leach also began exploring Asian vegetables as an extension of her identity. As a Korean adoptee, Leach didn’t grow up with a Korean community, but farming provided a path for her to learn more about her heritage. “I got to know Korean plants way better than Korean people,” Leach jokes. While working at a farm in Bolinas 10 years ago, she began growing a small plot of Korean vegetables and herbs, such as Korean perilla — a distinctly-scented herb in the same family as the Japanese shiso, but bigger, and integral to Korean cuisine. A friend suggested she take them to the owners of Namu Gaji, brothers Dennis, Daniel, and David Lee. After internet sleuthing told her that they were passionate about shopping at farmers markets, Leach walked into the restaurant one day with a box of perilla. David Lee, sticking his face into the box, immediately lit up. “He was like, ‘Oh my god, you grow perilla?’” Leach recalls.

Leach now works full-time for Namu, the restaurant’s farm. Thanks to the support of the Lee brothers, she has been able to take an experimental approach, making calculated risks to breed the best seeds for crops traditionally grown in Asia — such as Korean melon — for the long term. She hopes to pass on that knowledge, to get other Korean Americans excited about farming the food of their culture.

“My farm has connected me to an incredible Korean American community,” she says. “Instead of being the kingpin of Korean produce, I would rather just have others ship these ideas out, making them more available.”

Kristyn Leach grows long beans, Korean melons, and shiso, among other items, at Namu Farm in Winters, California.
Michelle Min/Eater

Perhaps what these young farmers are proliferating most of all is a sense of pride. Asian Americans today represent less than 1 percent of American farmers. At a time when local produce and the (often white) small farms that grow it are celebrated at the finest restaurants, it can create a disconnect between the Napa cabbage Asian Americans ate at family meals and the Lacinato kale we pay a premium for in markets and restaurants today. But what’s to say that sustainably grown, heirloom Asian vegetables can’t be perceived with the same value as, say, green zebra tomatoes?

That divide is something that Fred Lee has been bridging since taking over his family farm in the 1990s. After serving in WWII, Lee’s father joined his brother and cousin to start the farm in Long Island in the mid-1940s. Due to laws severely restricting the career opportunities for Chinese Americans, he had grown up in his family’s laundry business. As an adult, he vowed that he would never again clean other peoples’ clothes for a living.

“Farming was a new adventure for them,” says Lee, now owner of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, New York.

Sang Lee Farms originally supplied Chinese vegetables wholesale for New York City’s Chinatown and regional Asian markets. Lee grew up helping out on the farm, but wasn’t planning to return to it after college. However, during his last semester of college, his father passed away. As the only son, Lee felt obligated to return to the family business.

“Looking back, I’d have to say that maybe there was a cultural component to it that I didn’t really recognize then,” says Lee.

Gradually, Lee’s extended family all left the business, leaving him to run the farm along with his wife, Karen, and their children. By the ’80s and ’90s, the market for Asian vegetables was becoming crowded. He moved away from wholesale, focusing on retail. Lee credits his wife with helping the farm survive through the transition by setting up a roadside flower stand, which their children tended. They also started growing mesclun greens for New York City retail vendors, such as Balducci’s. Out of concern for his family’s health, and convinced there had to be a healthier way to grow vegetables, Lee began transitioning away from the use of chemical pesticides, and within a few short years stopped using them altogether.

“My father had passed away a number of years prior from cancer, and while I can’t prove a direct relationship, I did not like handling those chemical materials regardless,” he says. The farm received organic certification in 2007.

Sang Lee continues to grow the Chinese broccoli, yu choy, and daikon radish that it always had, only for CSAs and other local customers who aren’t necessarily Chinese or Asian American. The Asian vegetables now make up only a small percentage of the farm’s crops.

“There is an interest in Asian greens, and some customers still come to us for it and say, ‘stir-frying with fresh bok choy or whatnot is the greatest thing,’” says Lee. “But I think the level that we grow now, the small plantings, will probably hold constant.”

Another player in the local food movement has a different calculation. Wen-Jay Ying, founder of Local Roots NYC, has been working with farmers to help them plan crops for the coming season. Her business sources from local farms to curate a weekly share of food, and Ying has found that her customers appreciate unique varieties of Asian vegetables.

“As an Asian American, this is how I can show my culture and my lineage, and it also shows Chinese cuisine in a different way,” says Ying. “We tend to think of sustainable food in a certain way, so this would show that Asian greens can be a part of that.”

She’s working with Taproot Farms to increase their variety of Asian vegetables, and to start growing Taiwanese sword leaf, also known as Pointed Leaf Lettuce, a green in the choy family. These types of greens have worked well for farm’s soil, located in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Ying is hoping that the farm can grow and sell more of them to restaurants interested in featuring local and responsibly grown Asian vegetable varieties — and that customers, not just members of Local Roots, can make the connection between local, sustainable agriculture and Asian food.

“My mom often says, ‘They don’t grow these [Asian] vegetables here,’” says Ying. “But if I can show her that they can be, and get Asian Americans excited to use ingredients that are personal to them, then that will change the way Asian Americans are cooking in this country.”

Cathy Erway is the author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island, The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, and the host of the Heritage Radio Network podcast Eat Your Words and the upcoming podcast Self Evident.
Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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