In Asia there is a special vegetable, renown by growers for its productivity, by chefs for its appearance, and by diners for its flavor and tender-crisp texture. Reportedly, it is one of Southeast Asia’s top ten vegetables, grown especially in southern China and Taiwan. That report, however, does it less than justice. In addition, it is the most widely grown legume of the Philippines, where it is known as “poor-man’s meat.” It also is very well known in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, and more.
In recent decades, this popular bean has begun picking up aficionados far beyond Asia. Indeed, there is now a rising regard for it worldwide. Many countries already consider it a leading Oriental vegetable. In Europe, for instance, it is being grown extensively. And the United States has also begun producing it on a large scale for Chinese, Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Indian restaurants. It is now found year-round in America’s Asian markets and in those supermarkets that have specialty produce sections. Yet the demand keeps rising. California growers, for example, can’t seem to produce enough; importers bring in additional supplies from Mexico and the Caribbean to meet the needs of places such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.
This special foodstuff is the pod of an unusual legume. It resembles a snap bean except for one singular fact: it is pencil-thin and as much as a meter long. Often called yardlong bean in English, these green to pale-green pods are tender, stringless, succulent, and sweet. Typically, they are sliced and boiled and served with a little butter, like string beans. Their crisp texture and flavor hold up well when steamed or stir-fried. Most enthusiasts claim they resemble French beans. Some detect a mushroom-like taste. A few note in them a hint of asparagus, a connection reflected in this plant’s other common name, “asparagus bean.” All agree, however, that it is delicious.
A surprising thing about this “Oriental” vegetable is that it is not from the East at all. In the beginning—thousands of years ago—it was unknown to any Asian, or for that matter any European or New World inhabitant. But it was well known to Africans. This historical fact is a fairly new realization. A century ago even botanists were fooled into labeling the plant Vigna sinensis (bean of China). But now we know that it is nothing more than a