For one second, I thought I saw the shadow of a smile. A crack at the corner of her lips. At last an acknowledgment of my continued custom - 20 years now. But no. That is not the way they do business in London's Chinatown, with its baskets of strange greens and dangling ducks. I guess a surly grunt is preferable to an insincere 'Have a nice day.'
The greens arrive by truck, hugger-mugger in loose-weave reed baskets that could double as a laundry bin. Heads down, the shop staff machete the untidy green stems into shape, bring the leaves together into a uniform huddle then secure them with a rubber band. Neat, crisp, pert. The gardener Joy Larkcom describes them as 'the warp and woof of Chinese cookery'.
A little oval plate of steamed Chinese greens in oyster sauce interests me more than any other vegetable. Even asparagus. It could be the tender-stemmed and elegant choi sum, the purple-veined spinach or the fat, leafy bulbs of pak choi. Then again, the chef might have splashed his sizzling garlic, oyster sauce and shredded ginger over long, finger-thick stems of Chinese broccoli. A Chinese meal is never quite the same without that little battered dish, its well-worn edges and its steaming mound of 'greens in brown stuff'.
Pak choi, sometimes called baak choi, seems to me to be perhaps the perfect vegetable, having soft, melting leaves and plump stems bursting with juice. So there you are, stuffing the steaming leaves into your mouth, getting the hot sting of garlic and ginger and the deep savour of the oyster sauce, then - crunch - you bite into the chubby stems and the blistering juice squirts out. A sensational mouthful that makes our national dish of buttered broccoli look about as exciting as compost.
There are usually two sorts of pak choi on sale. A white-stemmed one with dark leaves and a pale green-stemmed one with softer leaves. Both are good. I am attempting to grow the latter in the garden this year.
Even better than pak choi is the same idea made with Chinese broccoli. The stems are like asparagus, tender but with some resistance. Now, we have been led to assume these platters of glistening greens are straight from the steamer. Yet anyone who has tried this will know that by the time the stems are al dente the leaves have turned the colour of a squashed frog. What you need to do is plunge the stems and their leaves into deep, furiously boiling water. I don't salt mine much, as most Asian bottled sauces are so jam-packed with the stuff that you are bound to overdo it. The quicker they cook the better.
Gaai choi is the loosely packed brassica with wavy leaves. As if someone has done an impression of Melvyn Bragg's hair with a cabbage. It keeps well and has a smart, mustardy bite. In fact, most shoppers know it as mustard cabbage. It needs a good wash. Aphids and grit like to snuggle down inside the folds of the stems.
This is where things get complicated. Even as a regular user of Asian shops, I get my Chinese broccoli mixed up with my Chinese flowering cabbage. Both have long green stems and leaves. Both have tight flowers bursting yellow. The flavour is not dissimilar. Eagle eyes will pick up that the cabbage has more pointed, shinier leaves and whiter stems. The broccoli, the vegetable I long more than any other to find in British greengrocers and markets, has more tenderness and softer leaves. Both are candidates for blanching or stir-frying.
Greens of any sort are comfortable with the knee-jerk seasonings of garlic, ginger and chilli, but I like them with lemon, too. If you are stir-frying, add some very finely shredded lemon grass to the garlic and ginger before you add the leaves. A good squirt from a lemon would do, too.
I honestly do not know why we don't grow these greens instead of our boring broccoli and pungent sprouts. The few specialists and keen amateurs who do, claim our weather is perfect for them. Many taste of mustard, too, a spice that seems part of the British soul. I must say I don't use them with fish - I don't think they work together - but their green heat is welcome with chicken, pork and beef, and they are fine on their own tossed with the garlic and ginger with which they sit so happily.
Chicken with choi sum and lemon grass
Enough for 1 as a main dish
250g boned free-range chicken meat
1 large, fat stalk of lemon grass (or 3 smaller supermarket ones)
2 fat, juicy garlic cloves
1 large knob of ginger, about the size of a golf ball
for the greens
300g choi sum or Chinese broccoli 1 plump clove of garlic
a small handful chopped coriander leaves
Cut the chicken into thin strips, about the thickness of a little finger. Put them into a bowl. Peel the outer leaves from the lemon grass and slice the more tender inner leaves into very fine rounds. Peel the ginger and finely crush it. Peel the ginger, too, then rub it on a very fine grater, so that you get a thick purée. Scrape it into the bowl with the chicken, the garlic and the sliced lemon grass. Drizzle over enough oil to moisten and toss the whole lot gently, then set aside for an hour or more.
Rinse the greens under running water, then tear into manageable lengths. Peel and finely chop the garlic. Get a wok hot, pour in a small pool of oil, let it smoke, then add the marinated chicken. There will be much splutter and pop. Let the chicken cook, without moving it, until the underside is golden brown. Now turn it over and cook the other side.
Lift the chicken out with a draining spoon or tongs. Toss the garlic into the wok, then before it burns, dump the greens, shaken free of any water, in with it. They will crackle and steam alarmingly. (If they don't, your wok wasn't hot enough). Turn them over in the hot oil for a minute or two until they wilt and the stems are tender.
Return the chicken and any escaped juices to the wok. Grind over some salt, chuck in the coriander and toss gently together. Serve while hot and sizzling.
Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce and ginger
In theory, this is a side dish. That is how it would be eaten in a Chinese restaurant. I am happy to eat it as a supper dish, piled on top of a bowl of rice. Enough for 2 as a side dish.
600g pak choi, choi sum or Chinese broccoli
for the sauce
1 knob of ginger about the size of a golf ball
2 large, juicy cloves of garlic
2 tbsp groundnut or vegetable oil
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
Rinse the greens, taking care to get every bit of grit out from the folds of the leaves. A brief soak in cold water is probably the best way. Peel the ginger and cut it into wafer-thin slices, then cut into matchstick-sized shreds. Peel the garlic and chop finely.
Fill a large pan with water, bring to a furious boil and salt lightly. Dunk the green on to the water and leave to boil till tender. I think they should have a bit of bite, too.
When the greens are within a minute or two of doneness, get a wok or frying pan really hot, then add the oil. As the oil starts to shimmer and lightly smoke, throw in the ginger and garlic. Quickly move the pan around so that the oil and aromatics swoosh around and up the sides. The garlic will colour in seconds - don't let it burn. Stir in the oyster sauce and the sesame oil and let it bubble briefly. Turn off the heat. Drain the greens, then add them to the sauce. Any drips of water left will simply help to correct the consistency of the sauce. Eat while the greens are still piping hot.
Stir-fried choi sum
Choi sum leaves are like spinach in that they cook down to nothing. What may seem like a misprint soon appears to shrivel down to the right amount. Enough for 1-2 as a side dish.
500g spinach, Chinese purple spinach or choi sum
2 tbsp groundnut oil
2 fat cloves of garlic
1 knob of ginger, the size of a walnut in its shell
1 medium-sized, hot, fresh red chilli
2 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 tsp caster sugar
Remove the thickest of the stems from the choi sum - but leave the tender ones - or discard any coarse leaves from the spinach. Rinse thoroughly to remove any grit.
Peel the garlic and finely chop. Peel the ginger and shred finely, so that each piece is not thicker than a matchstick. Cut the chilli in half lengthways, remove the seeds if you wish (leave them in if you fancy something rather hotter), then slice very thinly.
Get your wok hot over a high flame, then add the oil. It will shimmer and maybe smoke slightly. Quickly scrape in the garlic and the ginger. Move them quickly round the pan, either by shaking the pan or with chopsticks. They will brown in seconds. Throw in the chilli. Now add the greens and stir-fry for one minute. In that time they should wilt and soften to a deep emerald green. Move them around quickly so that they do not burn. Slosh in the rice wine (or a drop of dry sherry, if that is what you have around), then sprinkle over the sugar and the salt. Don't be tempted to add less: they are an essential part of the recipe. Leave to bubble for a minute or two, then serve immediately.