To build up the courage to ask Ha a favor, I did my usual thing: walked his nano-aisles of fresh produce twice before diving in for three or so staples and one or two veggies with which I was unfamiliar. When I went to pay was when I made my move. “What’s up, Ha?” I said. “How you been, brother?”
“Oh, you know, you know,” he replied, as always.
“Hey, Ha, I got a question for you. Y’all grow any veggies you don’t bring to the market? Like ones you keep for yourselves?”
Ha threw me the “what’s-your-end-game-here” look typical of a good farmer.
And Ha Lee Moua, who runs Ha Lee Moua farm along with his mother and father, is most definitely “a good farmer.” They have been farming Butte County soil for over three decades now, producing anything and everything they think they can grow. More than a few of the vegetables they grow and sell originated in the far east and some have become supermarket staples—Napa cabbage, for example—but many others are still unfamiliar to Chico Certified Farmers’ Market patrons. Ha, and many other Hmong farmer-vendors, is here to change that.
“You’ve turned me on to quite a few new veggies, and I want to keep that going,” I continued.
Ha turned to his Ma, who was perfecting the flower arrangements in the back-left corner. There was a short, half-whispered conversation, and then Ha turned back to me. “Like a bitter eggplant thing maybe?”
“Yes! Yes,” I said, reaching for my change. “Whatever. I’ll take it!” We arranged for him to bring some “bitter eggplant thing” to next Saturday’s market and I exited his booth giddy at the idea of a farmer bringing something to the market specifically for me.
We arranged for him to bring some “bitter eggplant thing” to next Saturday’s market and I exited his booth giddy at the idea of a farmer bringing something to the market specifically for me.
Visiting farmers’ markets is what I do on weekends. It’s truly not a Chico Saturday in my book if I don’t overpack my tote with produce and then walk to Helen’s Donut Nook for a confection or two. The last three cities I lived in before moving to Chico in 2015—Las Cruses, New Mexico, San Diego, California, Boulder, Colorado—all had fantastic markets I frequented weekly. However, none of these markets elevated my cooking and, subsequently, lifted my soul like Chico’s Saturday market. And the reason is simple: diversity of inexpensive product.
Nearly every week, as I stroll the lanes of the Chico Municipal Parking Lot, I’m slightly astonished by both what I can get and the price at which I can get it. For a 20-spot and some wandering, I’m rewarded with ingredients that, one, I could never find at a local supermarket and, two, would break the bank had I driven down to, say, Whole Foods in Roseville to peruse the polished fruits and vegetables. What Whole Foods charges for an 8-ounce clamshell of fresh lemongrass starts with “highway” and ends with “robbery.” At the farmers’ market, a month’s bunch of lemongrass is $2.
And while nearly every stand at the Chico farmers’ market offers variety on a budget, who I have to thank most are our local Hmong farmers and vendors. They’ve changed both what and how I cook.
When I returned to Ha’s stand the following Saturday, he was apologetic. “We didn’t have any fresh bitter eggplant. Sorry, man. But,” he said, reaching for a ziploc under his cashbox, “we did have some frozen for you.” He handed over the tightly packed plastic pouch.
“Thank you, Ha! This is awesome. Much appreciated.”
“It’s from last year,” he said, humbly, and then shared out some brief cooking instructions: pork ribs, aromatics, and water. Bring to a boil, add contents of package. Cook two hours or so.
Nearly every week, as I stroll the lanes of the Chico Municipal Parking Lot, I’m slightly astonished by both what I can get and the price at which I can get it.
Back at home I thawed the bag until I could open it and look more closely at its contents. The veggie inside was definitely nothing I’d seen before, kind of like a tiny green pumpkin?! After not a short amount of trial and error research, I finally identified it as likok (solanum aethiopicum, also called bitter eggplant, bitter tomato, Ethiopian eggplant, nakati, garden eggs and/ or mock tomato). It’s a member of the nightshade family, like tomatillos and huckleberries, and is often used in Indian and Asian cuisine. Not only does it impart a unique flavor— vegetal, bitter, acerbic but also a tad sweet—it’s also a great natural thickener, similar to okra.
I followed Ha’s preparation advice (which he credits to Ma), improvised a bit, and came up with the recipe at right. As with all of the recipes here, experimenting and trying new ingredients and preparations are the keys. These five recipes—two mains, two sides (with variations.) and one must-have condiment—feature somewhat off -the-beaten-path veggies.
Just like no one likes to talk about the same thing every day, no one likes to eat the same damn thing over and over either. When I pick up an unfamiliar veggie from Ha Lee Moua Farm, H Lee Thao, Moua’s Produce, or any other farmers’ market vendor, I ask the farmer-vendor for preparation inspiration.
They thank me, and I thank them right back!
Stephen David Caldes is a writer, home cook, and assistant professor in the Journalism and Public Relations Department at CSU, Chico. He has many hobbies, but eating with friends is his favorite.