Market Talk: A Conversation with Tammy Wong, Part I

Thursday, September 3, 2009 40 comments
Chinese Broccoli Beef Stir Fry

Is it obvious yet how much I've enjoyed the farmer's market this summer? I've only mentioned it in several recent posts and in such awed terms that one might think I had found the Holy Grail after swimming to Atlantis! This kind of fervor might be expected of the newly converted, but I'm no farmers' market neophyte - I've shopped my fair share over the years.

But the shameful truth is that, until recently, I've treated farmers' markets as if they were simply outdoor, summertime extensions of the grocery store. Offered a cornucopia of picked-that-morning produce, I would faithfully buy my usual tomatoes, lettuce, onions and the occasional bundle of asparagus or broccoli, while completely ignoring the diversity of food around me.

So what's changed? Two words: Food blogs. Reading others' sites and writing my own have made me more aware of the incredible variety of fresh ingredients in the culinary universe. Ramps and garlic scapes? Sunflower sprouts and squash blossoms? This summer, my eyes were finally opened to the delicious gems that were hidden in plain sight.

But for every new vegetable that I tried, like kohlrabi, there were many others whose names I didn't know, much less how to prepare. So when local food advocate Susan Berkson, tireless supporter of the Minneapolis Farmers' Market and co-host of the radio program 'Fresh and Local' (AM950 KTNF), offered a spot on a guided tour of the MFM with Tammy Wong, chef and owner of the well-regarded Rainbow Chinese Restaurant, I didn't hesitate.

During the market walk a couple of weekends ago, I learned the names and uses of so many new vegetables that I could barely keep them in order. Fortunately, among our group was Katie Cannon, a writer and photographer for Twin Cities-based online food magazine The Heavy Table, who wrote a comprehensive, photo-filled re-cap of our foray and a follow-up article featuring Chef Wong's recipes that should not be missed.

(Katie Cannon/Heavy Table)
But the most fascinating part of that tour was our energetic guide: Tammy Wong. Watching as she confidently strode between the tables, greeting favorite vendors and pointing out the virtues of unfamiliar produce, I was so impressed by her enthusiasm for the local foods on display. Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with her to learn more about her experiences at the market, her love of cooking and her thoughts on the ethnic food scene in Minneapolis/St. Paul. (Photo courtesy of Katie Cannon/Heavy Table)

At the start of our conversation, Tammy asked about my blog, then candidly confessed, "One of my weaknesses is that I don't write. I can tell you stories all day long [but] I don't have the patience and I don't feel confident to write." So, while I am more than happy to write about her, I think you'll agree that Tammy's own words speak clearly for her.

On how she got started in the restaurant business:

"[Opening a restaurant] was not my idea. My dad . . . whenever he made a decision, we had to follow. It was the same way that we moved from New York to California and to Minnesota! So, he just decided to buy this restaurant [a former noodle shop]. I am the oldest daughter [of 9 children] in the family - I feel like I'm the second mother or head of the household because that's what [my parents] would tell me and so I would go file the papers and learn how to run the business. I've been doing it since 1987."

Rainbow Chinese Restaurant on Nicollet Avenue (Eat Street), Minneapolis

On the state of Chinese food in the Twin Cities two decades ago:

"As much as I remember, there was not much variety. Let's say, if you want to have dim sum, there was only a couple of restaurants that will serve it on the weekends."

"In 1983, when I came to Minneapolis, my first job was working in a little restaurant in St. Louis Park. I saw that people ordered a lot of chow mein. I had no idea what it was! I had no idea what was egg foo young. I lived in Vietnam and I was a refugee in Hong Kong [before] I moved to New York. I had never seen chow mein being served - what is it?  . . . So, it was exciting to go to a restaurant where you can have actual Cantonese-style noodles but it was really hard to find. Now, in the past 10 to 15 years, we have more and more Chinese [particularly from the northern provinces, in the Twin Cities] so there are more authentic restaurants that have opened, like Little Szechuan and Tea House.**"

(**Correction: Tammy also mentioned another authentic Szechuan restaurant, Grand Szechuan [menu link from ah-ha! Cooking with Gas & Glass blog, via Heavy Table], which recently opened in Bloomington. My apologies for leaving them out in the initial post!)

On finding particular ingredients, then and now:

"[Back in 1987] there were not many grocery stores where you could get a lot of ingredients [for Chinese cooking]. It was very different than what I was familiar with when I lived in New York. Everyday I was in Chinatown . . . and in California, we grew our own vegetables because of the long growing season. When we came to Minneapolis, it was really, really cold - we came in winter of 1983 - and you had to go to a few stores and most of the time you just have to get what you get."

"One of the greens that many Asians are familiar with is Chinese broccoli, gai lan. Normally, in the winter, we have them shipped in from California and in the summertime, we would go to the farmers' market and buy them."

On her own discovery of the farmers' market's charms:

"At the beginning, I didn't shop at the farmers' market - my mother did. Later on, I was hired to do cooking for a group of Japanese exchange students for three weeks. So I had to be very clever about cooking something that they would love, something different every day. I would use the farmers' market and pick different vegetables but I didn't pay more attention like how I've done it in the past few years."

(Tammy first started going to the Minneapolis Farmers' Market regularly just to buy plants for landscaping around the restaurant.)
"I spent almost every day at the farmers' market to learn about different plants - over the years, I tried many, many plants. Then, I would meet a lot of growers later on, after they were done [selling] plants and were selling vegetables. They recognized me, saying 'I remember you buying this and this from me last year' and then we started to communicate. And instead of just buying broccoli, onion, and a couple of other vegetables, I started paying attention [for instance] to how a bell pepper ripens. It was very fascinating for me to learn."

On embracing the joys of growing her own vegetables and realizing that food in different places is, well, different:

"I don't live too far from the Soo Line Gardens [a Twin Cities community garden] and many years ago, I decided, 'I'm going to sign up if any plot comes available - I'm going to garden down there'. So I did that, too! By learning not just about buying [plants] but also of how they grow, [I learned that] if you're not taking care of them, they're not going to have better vegetables for you. So, now I feel that many of these people [at the market] don't get paid enough for what they do!"

"When I was in Hong Kong, the vegetables - even though they are the same [kind as here], like long beans - they have a slightly different color, different shape. It was the same thing when I was in Italy, when I went to the market, an artichoke looks slightly different [than one here]. In Minnesota, if you buy from different vendors, they have different flavors. I bought some carrots at Rolf's Produce - I thought that they were the best carrots! I remember he told me how his father chose the land, a kind of sandy land, how it made the vegetables taste really good because of the soil."

"[Three years ago] I went back to Vietnam for the first time in almost 30 years. I went to the market with my cousin and we were just fascinated at all the food. There was no way we could get the same [vegetables] in America. It's a different experience there even though [we can now get a lot here.]"

On the camaraderie and sense of sharing at the market:

"I saw this woman who had bought this young ginger root and I asked, 'Where did you get this?' She said, 'Oh, this was the last bunch. But I'm happy to share half with you.' So then, from what she gave me, I gave half to Lori [a vendor] from Rolf's Produce because I knew she would love it."

(I reminded Tammy of the instance during our tour when she had stopped an older woman in a sari, pulling a cart full of gourds, to ask what she was going to do with them.)
"I'm curious [about what others will do with vegetables] and it's the same way when I buy something, they ask me. And it's really rewarding for me that many of the growers know me now much more. Last weekend, I was there and this sweet woman [a grower from whom Tammy buys long beans] came up to me and asked, 'How are you going to make these?'"

That's exactly the question I kept asking Tammy during our market walk - 'How do you cook these?' - while holding up some alien vegetable. With her help, I've expanded my produce knowledge that much more and am now even more eager to discover other strange and fascinating foods at the market.

There is so much more from my conversation with Tammy Wong that I would like to share with you, so please check back soon to read more about what inspires her cooking, her thoughts on people's food preferences and how they react to new eating experiences.

Chinese Broccoli Beef Stir Fry
Tammy noted that Chinese broccoli, or gai lan (kai-lan in Cantonese), is a familiar vegetable to many Asians but is not yet commonly found in American grocery stores. As soon as she pointed them out during our market tour, I knew immediately what I would make with them - Broccoli Beef Stir Fry! So it's not the most original idea but it is a favorite dish in the Noodle household. In the past, however, I would make the sauce from a packaged, powdered mix and would use whatever cut of meat I happened to have on hand.

This time, I took to heart Tammy's words on the keys to good cooking: keep it simple and start with good ingredients. With a simply beautiful bunch of gai lan from the Minneapolis Farmers' Market, I picked up a juicy sirloin steak and set about making Broccoli Beef Stir Fry sans mix or recipe. The result wasn't bad at all! Although it is from the same family as the familiar crowns of broccoli we find at supermarkets, gai lan tastes less bitter, with a sweet flavor closer to that of asparagus. For as long as I can still find gai lan at the farmers' market, I don't think I'll go back to Western broccoli anytime soon.

Yields 2-4 servings


2/3 lb sirloin beef, sliced thin
1 small white onion, sliced thick
2 cups Chinese broccoli/gai lan, cut into 2" pieces, rinsed then blanched. All parts - leaves, stem and flowers - may be used
1 Tbsps canola oil
1-2 tsps sesame oil
2-3 Tbsps oyster sauce
1/2-1 tsp sambal oelek or other chili paste
1-2 tsps black bean garlic paste
3-4 small plum tomatoes, quartered
Sesame seeds for garnish

To make:

To blanch the gai lan, bring a pot of water to a boil then immerse vegetables for about a minute or so, then remove or drain. Immediately immerse vegetable in cold water to stop the cooking process, drain and set aside.

1. Heat canola and sesame oils in large wok over medium-high heat;
2. Stir fry beef until about medium rare, leaving some pink in the meat. Remove from wok and set aside.
3. Add sliced onions and stir-fry until onion slices begin to separate;
4. Add gai-lan, followed by oyster sauce, sambal oelek and black bean garlic paste. Stir well to coat the onions and broccoli;
5. Add the meat and stir again to mix well. Add tomatoes just before serving;
6. Garnish with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and serve with fresh steamed rice.

Enjoy and please check back soon for more about Chef Tammy Wong!


  • Yarntangler said...

    We always look for the Farmer's Markets wherever we travel in our Rv. I have learned to seek out less familiar treats like lemon cucumbers and Jerusalem artichokes. I buy all my jams and jellies there and love to experiment with the local specialties.

    Traveling full time as we do, we get to savor each region's special foods.

  • The Diva on a Diet said...

    What a great experience for you, Noodle! Fabulous post, too. I really enjoyed reading this and getting a peak into the MN farmer's market scene ... and into Tammy's life as well.

    The recipe rocks too ... I love Chinese broccoli!

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    was this the beef + broccoli you mentioned over twitter? looks amazing! Love the sesame seeds and tomato addition.

    I love meeting new people at the farmers market. You learn so much about what you are buying. I find more often than not that the people at the market who sell what the grow/make are so passionate and really care about their product.

  • lisaiscooking said...

    It's so great to see farmers' markets doing so well all across the country. I love talking with people about the vegetables and how they plan to use them--especially the farmers themselves. Wish I could get locally grown gai lan!

  • Table Talk said...

    Talking with the farmers/vendors at the market is one of the things I enjoy most about the experience. Although we have a number of markets available here now, we do not have quite the variety you are fortunate enough to experience. We do have an awesome Asian market, so I can get the Chinese broccoli to make this tempting dish!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Whew! Everyone's fed and heading to bed early - long day tomorrow of helping SIL move into her very first house!

    Joelen - Thank you! The broccoli turned such a vivid green - never thought to blanch them first.

    Elra - Thanks! For once, I didn't have to 'touch' the food to arrange it nicely. They all played well together!

    Bob - That's too bad! Hopefully you'll still have a chance before it gets too cold. This one I keep talking about is at least 30 min drive so I have to plan ahead.

    Palidor - Thank you! This was the first time I added tomatoes and it went well with the flavors.

    Yarntangler - That's fantastic! It's getting so that Farmers' Markets are as much a destination as any other landmark in a city. And you're absolutely right that they often have the best examples of regional food. Lucky!

    Doggybloggy - Oh, thank you! All the components cooperated very nicely. 8-)

    Sam - Thanks! The closest FM to me is also quite small and not as varied but it's so much more social than the grocery store. People may become tired of it, but I've got a bit more waxing poetic about the markets yet! 8-)

    Diva - Thank you! I regret all those other times when I overlooked such great food but now I'm enjoying myself. Tammy is really wonderfu and as for gai lan - where has it been all this time? I seriously don't know if I can settle for any other kind of broccoli after this! 8-)

    Chow and Chatter - Thanks! When I let myself be receptive, I've found inspiration from so many sources, online and outdoors!

    Gastroanthropology - Actually, that one may have been with regular broccoli (which, at the time, was quite satisfying, until this). I threw in the tomatoes because my sister makes a great broccoli stir-fry that incorporates them and they go so well.

    I absolutely agree with you regarding the passion and enthusiasm of the vendors and growers. I've learned that asking them a question is not a nuisance; instead, they love the opportunity to share their knowledge. Of course, I love the opportunity to learn! I wish I lived a little closer to them - I'd be chatting away every day!

    Lisa - I read a recent Mpls Star Trib article that said the number of FM's nationwide has more than tripled in the past 15 years and I think this is an ongoing upward trend. Yay! During this tour, Chef Wong gave us quick cooking tips for many of the strange new veggies but I often ask the vendors how they do it at home. As for gai lan, until this, I'd only ever had them at dim sum restaurants. Over the winter, I'll have to search for them at Asian markets.

    Prasukitchen - Thanks for visiting and I'll definitely be stopping by and checking yours out, too!

    Table Talk - The variety of produce, particularly of those used in Asian cooking, is really impressive here. The downside, of course, is that for several very cold months, we must do without. That's when I envy you who have great Asian markets; I like the ones we have but there always seems to be one or two things that they lack. Sigh. The grass is always greener . . . 8-D

    Kelsey B - Thank you! The recipe is actually very flexible: increase and decrease any of the ingredients for just the flavor you like. 8-)

  • Anonymous said...

    The stir fry looks wonderful, great flavors and colors for this dish! Looking forward to reading more about your conversation with Tammy Wong!

  • Mariana Kavroulaki said...

    I love visiting farmers' markets. Vegetables, wild greens,herbs, fruits, olives, bread, rusks, pasta, cheese, nuts, honey are always part of the offering. One might pay more at than the grocery store, but the farmers' products are of higher quality and very fresh.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Hope everyone had a lovely weekend!

    Nora - Thank you! My sister had a broccoli stir fry recipe in which she used tomatoes so I 'borrowed' her idea. 8-)

    Midge - I hope you enjoy it! This is one of my husband's favorites but until recently, I always used those packet mixes. No more! 8-)

    5 Star - Thank you so much! I will have the second part of my talk with Tammy toward the end of this coming week. She's one of those people who just draws you to her as soon as you are in her orbit - a wonderful person and tremendous cook!

    Mariana - This summer, I have really come to appreciate the market even more! I only wish it were open year-round, but I'm happy to have it for as long a I can. Although some items are indeed more expensive, most of the produce are not only cheaper than at grocery stores, I also find far more variety. My problem is that I'm often in danger of buying more than I can use! 8-)

    Gera - Thank you! I hope you had a wonderful weekend, too!

    Michele - I hope you do and that your mom likes it! Take care of yourself; I know that your recuperation has been up and down but I hope you're on you way to feeling much better!

    Velva - Thank you! Like you, I think a person's story can't just be about what they are doing today - it all had to start somewhere, right? 8-) Glad you enjoyed it and hope you'll stop in later this week for the next part!

  • The Beancounter said...

    your stir fry looks fantastic! with tomatoes...never done that before...

    i always get my kai lan only from markets...

    unfortunately there are some supposedly "farmers markets" in Australia that have been invaded by "yuppie" seachangers who'll charge you an arm and a leg for substandard produce...wanting to make big bucks similar to their former lives...

  • OysterCulture said...

    sounds like a great culinary adventure. Liked the reference to the new book, Chop Suey - interesting history of Chinese food in America. But nothing beats having conversations with people that have actually, been in the trenches.

  • Phyllis said...

    LOL, I didn't know what chow mein was either until I moved to New York in 1999! (actually, I still don't really know what is but what I do know is that my father-in-law really likes it!)

    I am so thrilled that you've discovered so many cool ingredients at your farmers market this summer! My basic strategy whenever I encounter an unfamiliar ingredient is to loiter around looking helpless until someone offers me advice!

    I love gai lan and this recipe is seriously making my mouth water! Oyster sauce, black bean, and sambal oelek together equals heaven :) Gai lan is so common and popular in Vancouver that I still find it weird when I don't see in my local NJ supermarket.

    Really enjoyed reading about your conversation with Tammy. Her experience reminds me a bit of two cookbooks I own by Ellen Leong Blonder (family recipes acompanied by personal stories of growing up Chinese-American) Looking forward to Part II of your conversation!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Helen - I've had gai lan during dim sum but this was the first time I made them at home! I love the flavor and next time, they'll be made simply to highlight their taste.

    Anonymous - You're welcome! So pleased you enjoyed this post.

    Greg - You're absolutely right. I'm much too quick to whine before I look around to see what's right in front of me!

    Beancounter - The tomatoes were inspired by my sister who added them to her broccoli stir fry. Now that I've found how much I love them, I'll need to get my fill before the farmers' market closes down!

    The 'eat local' movement has tons of positives but I do wonder if it may lead to a certain - for lack of a better word - elitism. Something to consider . . .

    OysterCulture - Chef Wong has definitely been in the trenches and her insight is fascinating. I'm so fortunate to have met her!

    Phyllis - [LOL] The helpless look works rather well. But I've found myself turning into my mom - just in-your-face demanding "what's this?" 8-P

    I've always enjoyed gai lan at restaurants but now that I've made it myself, I'm hooked. I hope I can still find it after the FM ends! And see, it's so common for you in Vancouver but I think it's only just starting to become more readily available here in MN. Thanks for mentioning the books by EL Blonder. I'm going to look those up!

    Unja - Thank you! Gai lan is soooo awesome - the flavor is delicate but distinct. Blanching it first really helped to tenderize it w/o turning it mushy. Please let me know what you think!

  • zerrin said...

    Great post! I love shopping and spending time at farmer's market here. I can always discover something new there and just like Tammy, I love talking to vendors and other people shopping there. sometimes I'm the one asking a woman how she will cook that, sometimes a woman (or a man)asks how I will cook the vegetable I'm buying. I love this interaction at these markets. Perfect way to learn!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Zerrin - I've always enjoyed reading about your visits to your markets. I'm so excited about ours, almost as if it were a novelty and yet in so many other parts of the world, such outdoor markets are everywhere and an everyday part of life!

    I'm starting to engage in the interactions you've described and it makes me feel so much more a part of the community than when I sit at home or I'm at the grocery store. 8-)

    Hornsfan - I wish the tour had been longer than an hour! But it introduced me to Tammy and I've had a chance to get to know her better!

    Duo Dishes - Yay! I'm loving my bottle of oyster sauce and you've reminded me to stock up. If you can find, I totally recommend Chinese broccoli - the flavor is sweeter than with regular broc!

  • Brenda said...

    Ahhhhhh! Gai lan is one of my all-time favorite foods (period). As a kid broccoli was my favorite vegetable and when I first encountered chinese broccoli having dim sum in NYC, slathered with delicious oyster sauce, I was in heaven. naturally, beef and broccoli is my favorite chinese take-out dish. sadly, Chinese food in London is pretty bad in general - I am inspired to try to make your version at home!

  • Spryte said...

    That's gorgeous! It looks so tasty too!!

    I could probably only get my oldest daughter to eat it with me. The rest of the family will only eat the top of the broccoli! They're so silly!


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