The Alemeny Farmer’s Market’s has a reputation of offering an array of produce without the steep prices found in other local markets. An odd comment here and there soon became a dull roar and I knew I must check this place out for myself.
Alemeny Farmer’s Market, AKA “The People’s Market”
The first thing I learned is that this market is old; a regular geezer in terms of most US farmer’s markets, but barely a glint in someone’s eye when compared to European or other countries’ markets. Its been around since 1943 and was the first farmer’s market in California. Today over 500 certified farmer’s markets exist in California and the number continues to swell. [source: sfgsa.org] The Alemeny Farmer’s Market was intended as a wartime measure to provide surplus and distressed crops from neighboring counties, and remains the only city run farmer’s market in San Francisco, with the City’s real estate department responsible for its operations.
In 1947, the market moved to its present location where it still operates, like the postal service, rain or shine, every Saturday of the year. The set up here is different than other farmer’s markets I’ve visited; the stalls are permanent, concrete structures that run together, each section has an elevated area where the farmer sets up her wares and can easily oversee the activity and answer questions as they are posed. One tip I would offer is to bring a notebook with you to copy down the names of foods you will encounter that are unfamiliar with you. Often the name is given in Vietnamese or Thai, or Chinese and then going back to the computer to research the vegetable can be challenging. All of the farmers are exceedingly friendly and as I had learned, some of them had been selling their wares at this market for generations.
This market is truly a people’s market and representative of the cultural diversity found in this area.
I unearthed a slew of new Asian greens, and had a culinary adventure discovering how to incorporate them into my cooking.
Other Names: Diép Ca, Dap Ca (both Vietnamese), Dokudami (Japanese)
If I had to describe any of these greens as exotic, diep ca is it. I’d never had anything like it, it certainly lived up to its name. It really tasted fishy, so much so that until I read about it, I was convinced they had dipped the leaves in fish sauce. That first bite, just after a sweet banana mind you, the taste came as a shock, buut it was delicious mixed with other greens and I enjoyed it sauteed in olive oil and garlic with my eggs, a very untraditional treatment to be sure. This uncommon herb should be explored, but it can be hard to find, and a Vietnamese market is probably your best option.
In Japan, the name for this plant tells of its ancient uses, doku = poison, and dami = blocking. It is considered one of the top healing herbs in Japan. When consumed it is most often eating in a salad, pressed for its juice, or dried and made into a tea.
Other Names: Bai Bua Bok, Hai Hobo, Hua-Hok (Thai), Daun Peyaga (Malaysian) Gotu Kola (Indian), Hang Kor Chow (Chinese), Nuoc Rau Ma (Vietnamese), Tsuho-Kusa (Japanese)
A favorite Vietnamese treatment for this herb is to blend with sugar into a refreshing herbal drink. Needless to say the store bought version is no comparison with the freshly made stuff. I really liked the somewhat grassy taste of this green and added it to my salad mix. I was really intrigued by the name, penny wort sounds like something out of Harry Potter, and I’d seen containers of Gotu Kola extract in the health supplement sections of the stores, so when I stared at the herb in my refrigerator, I could not help but think, “This is what all the fuss is about?” It was tasty, but it did not have that unexpected taste of fish mint, but isn’t there a saying somewhere about great things come in small (and unassuming) packages?
2 c pennywort, leaves only
2 T lime or lemon juice
1 sliced chilli (optional)
1 c fresh grated coconut
Salt to taste
½ tsp sugar
Wash well and strip leaves from stems. Shred finely with a sharp knife, combine with other ingredients and serve immediately. The flavour is slightly sour, slightly bitter.
Some people prefer this salad to be lightly cooked, if so bring a tablespoon of water and ½ teaspoon salt to the boil in a wok or pan, add all ingredients and toss over heat briefly, stopping before leaves lose their green color.
Recipe adapted from Encyclopedia of Asian Food, by Charmaine Solomon
Other Names: Dau Miu (Chinese)
These beauties are the young leaves and shoots of the snow pea plant and taste like a cross between spinach and peas.
Noodles with Shrimp and Pea Tendrils
From: Terra: Cooking from the Heart of Napa, by Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, Serves 4
1 T freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ tsp grated peeled fresh ginger
1 T soy sauce
½ tsp sugar
1 tsp Thai yellow curry paste
¼ tsp grated garlic
1 tsp Toasted sesame oil
10 oz Chinese egg noodles
3 T unsalted butter
20 med. shrimp, shelled
S + P
8 shiitake mushrooms
11⁄2 c shrimp stock
3 c pea tendrils
Lime-soy mixture: Whisk together all the ingredients and set aside.
Prepare the noodles in a large pot until al dente, about 2 minutes, and drain. Melt butter in a large pan over high heat until it starts to foam. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Add the shrimp and the shiitake mushrooms to the large pan and sauté until the shrimp start to turn pink, about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp stock and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Add 2 T of the lime-soy mixture to the shrimp and mushrooms, then add the noodles and pea tendrils and toss to combine. Simmer for 10 seconds. Serve.
Sweet Potato Leaves
Despite the fact that sweet potatoes are among the world’s most cultivated crop, the leaves are not often consumed. (Until I bought mine, I had never cooked with them.) Even in countries where sweet potatoes are a main crop such as in Asia and the Pacific, they are not often consumed by humans. As the farm animals nibble munch on them for food, eating them by humans is looked down upon as a food source for the very poor. But if that’s a case, I’d keep up that belief to avoid competition because they are a treat. They are great stir-fried in olive oil with garlic, dried chilies. Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit lately of shaking some fish sauce on my greens fora lovely umani taste.
These can be treated just like you would spinach or chard. They are not bitter like dandelion leaves or have any tough stringy bits. For overall ease of use, and flavor, these leaves are a favorite.
Water Spinach, Water Morning Glory, Water Convolvulus, Chinese Spinach or Swamp Cabbage
Other Names: Phak Bung (Thai), Rau Muóng (Vietnamese), Zun Ywet (Burmese)
This plant is very popular in East and Southeast Asia, as it can thrive with little care in the waterways, and is very common. To the dismay of many, it was introduced to the United States where its rapid growth has led to its designation as a “noxious weed” in Florida and Texas. Noxious, not for health reasons, but its effect on its environment.
Some of the different ways water spinach is used:
In Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, the leaves are usually stir fried with chiles, garlic, ginger, dried shrimp paste and other spices. In Penang and Ipoh, it is cooked with cuttlefish and a sweet and spicy sauce.
In Chinese a simple and quick stir-fry possibly with minced garlic is popular. In Cantonese cooking, adding preserved tofu is popular while with Hakka cuisine, you might find yellow bean paste and fried shallots. Interestingly in Chinese culture there is a belief that discourages people from eating too much of it saying that the hollow stem may make the person weak and hollow like the plant.
In Thailand and Burma, it is frequently stir-fried with oyster sauce or yellow soybean paste, and garlic and chillies. It can also be eaten raw, for instance with green papaya salad.
In Vietnam, the stems are julienned into thin strips and eaten with noodles, or it can be seen as a garnish.
In the Philippines, it is often sauteed with onions, garlic, vinegar, and soy sauce to make a dish called “adobong kangkong“. It is also a common leaf vegetable in stews like sinigang. There is also an appetizer in the Philippines called “crispy kangkong”, in which the leaves are coated with batter and fried until crispy.
In South India the leaves are finely chopped and mixed with grated coconut to prepare Thoran, a Kerala cuisine dish.
Tips: Andrea Nguyen on her wonderful site, Viet World Kitchen points out the the Vietnamese use herbs a bit differently than other cultures. If you’ve ever eaten pho you know that they rarely add the herbs while cooking, preferring to eat them raw as an accompaniment to the foods; the diner pinching off what she needs to add to their bowl, or hand roll.
Other Foods to be found at the Alemeny Market
Maybe you don’t like greens, and even if you do, there are other reasons to take advantage of this market. Other treats to be found included:
The purveyors of prepared food were as diverse as the eager early shoppers.
An Egyptian gentleman selling the most tasty of dips, all made with fava beans, including some tasty hummas type dip. Not surprisingly, his brand was called Fava.
A stand selling “gourmet” Pakistani foods, that were truly delectable
Indian food from samosas to a broad assortment of chutneys and sauces.
Too many yummy Mexican options to choose from, with the aromas leading you by your noise to their lively stands.
My mind is a bit of a blur with all the options available, but there were many, and they were good.
All of the vendors were eager to ply the nibbling shoppers with tasty samples, and you could eat well on these handouts alone. For me, it was definitely worth getting up early to go exploring and taking a bit of a road trip to discover new produce I’d never heard of, but could not wait to sample.