Originated in the Mediterranean region and brought to China during Tang Dynasty, celtuce is a popular vegetable in China, where it’s called Wosun (莴笋). Here in the US, it’s also known as stem lettuce, asparagus lettuce, Chinese lettuce, or celery lettuce (hence the made-up word “celtuce”).
Although relatively unknown to home cooks in the Western world, celtuce has in recent years become a darling of adventurous chefs and eaters. For example, French chef Yannick Alleno chose an exquisite celtuce dish for the cover of his cookbook “4 Seasons at Table No 5”. American chef Dan Barber, a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, grows and serves celtuce at his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Why the fascination with celtuce? Because inside the deceptive woody skin of the stem lies its juicy and tender flesh, with beautiful jade-green color, mild and nutty flavor with a hint of lettuce, and crisp texture. One word: divine!
In Chinese cooking, celtuce stems are often sliced and stir-fried with other ingredients such as pork, eggs, or wood ear mushrooms. Or they are eaten raw as a salad, which in my opinion is the best way to appreciate this delicate vegetable.
If you are able to find celtuce at your local farmers’ market or Chinese grocery store, prepare it simply and minimally, as does my recipe below, and you will be amazed.
By the way, while the succulent stem is the main attraction of celtuce, it’s inner leaves are edible as well. Slightly bitter and a bit tougher than common lettuce leaves, celtuce leaves are great when simply stir-fried or added to soups.
Celtuce ribbon salad
1 medium celtuce, about 8 oz (230 g)
1/4 teaspoon rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
- Remove the leaves from the stem and reserve for another use. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the stem as you would with broccoli stem, to remove the woody skin and reveal its jade-green inner flesh.
- Cut the peeled stem crosswise into two sections. Using a mandoline or vegetable peeler (a peeler with serrated blade would work like a charm), slice each section into thin ribbons.
- Add the celtuce ribbons to a bowl and mix in ¼ teaspoon of salt. Let stand for 15 minutes, as the salt will draw out some liquid and crispen them up.
- Drain the liquid from the ribbons. Mix in the rice vinegar and sesame oil. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
- Sprinkle with the sesame seeds and serve.
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