What Are Chinese Garlic Chives Or Allium Tuberosum – And What Aren’t They?
“…his legs kept propelling him forward as the pungent odour of garlic stalks and bulbs made his eyes water”
Mo Yan, The Garlic Ballads
The Garlic Ballads is a sad tale of Chinese peasants who are encouraged by the Government to grow garlic. They produce a glut. The Government refuses to help, and the peasants revolt. For two characters in the book this results in protracted tragedy. The book is a lament on the impossible plight of the poor, along the lines of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath which describes grinding poverty in the American countryside. Utterly depressing, I don’t recommend it.
The nearest Western equivalent to Chinese garlic chives are garlic scapes – they’re not the same but they have the long, green chive type stem as well as a strong garlicky flavour.
If you can’t get garlic scapes (they have a short season and are quite hard to find) it may be the best alternative is a mix of chives and garlic. Or – you could try growing them. Plant in early spring if you are growing outside in the Northern Hemisphere, or they will grow all year round inside, potted on a windowsill (but do you really want the smell of garlic wafting through your kitchen on a permanent basis?). You can get the seeds from either Dobies of Devon or via Amazon.
When young the leaves and flowers have an oniony, honey-like, garlic flavour. They’re good in all kinds of stir fries, with noodles and soups… and particularly with scrambled eggs or in Chinese dumplings with shrimp and coriander. I was taught to make these as part of a day-long course on Chinese cooking organised for me by my daughter in Shanghai. I had an absolutely wonderful time with my attempts being met with support and hilarity in equal measure. They afterwards told me that mine were the best produced by any foreigner they’d yet taught – it was abundantly clear that they weren’t very good! I thoroughly recommend the course which was run by Cook in Shanghai.
The flowers make a beautiful edible garnish (make sure you have the right type – some are not).
They don’t last well, so you should use them as soon after buying as you can, especially the yellow type which need to be used the same day. Like ordinary chives, add them towards the end of cooking or they will lose most of their flavour.
There are four main types:
Gau Choy – the ‘standard’ type which goes with seafood or scrambled eggs. Flat, broad leaves and white flowers which are edible. (make sure you have the right type – some are not). 韭菜; pinyin: Jiǔcài
Gau Choy Fa – stronger taste, hollow stems and yellow buds. Used in salads and stir fries. With flowers (jiu cai hua/ gau choi far) 韭菜花 hua/fa means flower in chinese – these have flowers where the others don’t.
Gau Choy Sum – also a flowering variety, but with a slightly different taste and flowers which are green. 韭菜心 pinyin: jiucaixin – xin means heart.
Gau Wong – these are ‘standard’ garlic chives which have been grown without sunlight. They have a milder taste and are often served on their own, as a vegetable in their own right. 韭黄 pinyin: jiuhuang – huang means yellow.
What aren’t garlic chives? Well, they’re not are daffodils. Public Health England has warned supermarkets that if daffodil bulbs are displayed too close to vegetable aisles their bulbs could be mistaken for onions (yes – really!) and the stems for Chinese chives. In 2012 several Chinese immigrants in Bristol were treated in hospital after accidentally eating daffodils – 黄水仙.