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Today: You'll only find garlicky stir-fried pea shoots on the menu some of the time—and that's why you should learn to make them at home.
If you’ve never had pea shoots (豆苗 dou miao), then you should immediately head to your local Asian supermarket and pick up a bag of these bright green vegetables. This is my favorite side dish at Chinese restaurants, and while it’s often not part of the menu because of its seasonal nature, I always ask for it. Luckily, when fresh pea shoots are available at the market, it's easy make this dish at home.
Also known as pea tips, pea stems, or pea vines, pea shoots are the tips of pea plants. For this particular dish, I’m using pea shoots harvested from snow pea plants, which you might find labeled “snow pea shoots.”
Be careful not to confuse pea shoots with pea sprouts, which are harvested from young pea plants and have thin bright green stems with delicate tendrils and miniscule leaves. The vegetable used traditionally in stir-fry, however, are the mature pea shoots, which have rather thick but hollow stems and voluptuous oval green leaves and are referred to as "big" pea shoots (大豆苗 da dou miao). The leaves don’t have the grittiness of spinach and are delicate and almost sweet in flavor. At the markets, you want to look for firm, bright green leaves—avoid any sign of wilt. If fresh pea shoots are not available, then you can substitute spinach or watercress for this recipe.
In the typical Chinese stir-fry, pea shoots are cooked at high heat in a wok. A bit of water is added to rapidly bring down the temperature and steam the pea shoots. Many restaurants use copious amounts of oil for maximum flavor, but I prefer a less oily dish, and I heat the oil with garlic for added seasoning. Salt is added to taste, as is sugar, which helps neutralize the pea shoots' natural bitterness. I add a bit of rice wine at the very end for fragrance (an optional step), and I’ve heard of sesame oil drizzled as a garnish (but I personally think the dish stands well without the extra addition).
Preparing these pea shoots is simple. The bottom of the stem can be tough, so I rip it off at the base of the first leaf. You might want to break long pea shoots in half to make two shorter pieces, but this is also up to your personal preference. Rinse the pea shoots in cold water and then drain them completely.
This is a very quick stir-fry: It won’t take long for the pea shoots to begin to wilt and turn bright green. As long as you don't overcook them, the pea shoots will be juicy and tender but still crunchy.
Customize this dish as you see fit: There are no recipes in Chinese cooking, just technique and taste. Adjust the amount of oil, the amount of garlic, and the inclusion of ginger or sesame oil. The stir-fry is more forgiving than you think.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
3 to 5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound fresh large pea shoots, cleaned and dried
1/2 tablespoon sugar
Salt, to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons rice wine
Photos by Betty Liu