Celery: European & Asian Varieties and Uses
Is nature or nurture the major determinant of character? In the case of one vegetable, the latter is undoubtedly the key.
Mother Nature gave us the smallage , the bitter, strongly scented wild celery native to the marshy coastal areas of the Mediterranean and Middle East. Different treatment of its stalks and roots by European gardeners turned smallage into two vegetables: crunchy long-stalked celery and turnip-shaped celeriac.
A Brief History of Celery
Celery was known to the ancient Greeks who treated it as a seasoning. In fact, its name comes from the Greek word sélinon being "parsley".
The Romans extended its roles to those of vegetable and a hangover-preventing garland to be worn at banquets. It was also used to crown athletes' heads and in funeral wreaths.
While cultivated forms existed in Roman times, these were later lost and the Middle Ages knew only the wild form. Renaissance Italian gardeners revived the art of celery cultivation and developed the mild, succulent celery we know today.
These gifted gardeners also managed to tap into this herbaceous plant's family genetics - it belongs to the carrot family (Umbelliferae ) - and coax it into becoming a root vegetable (again!), celeriac.
Celery is "blanched" to produce a whiter, milder vegetable. This has nothing to do with a dunking in boiling water. Rather, it is the horticultural practice of depriving a plant of light to cut chlorophyll production. Numerous methods are used, including covering the stems with papers and earthing them up.
Uses of Celery
The mild flavoured cultivated celery spread throughout Europe from Italy; hence it was for a long time considered an Italian vegetable as reflected in the French sceleri d'Italie .
Sixteenth-century France used celery only as a seasoning for soups, meats and stews. This background role can still be seen today in stock making. It was promoted to a full-fledged vegetable in the mid-17th century. In France and Italy, raw celery was eaten with a simple dressing of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Cooked celery recipes followed soon after, with one of the first combining celery, lemon, pomegranates and beets.
We might take celery for granted today but it remained an exotic food in England long after its introduction there in the 17th century. Instructions were required on how to eat it and, in her 1861 Book of Household Management , Mrs Beeton advised that "in its raw state, this plant does not suit weak stomachs ". I wonder what Mrs Beeton would make of the widespread inclusion of celery in health juices today!
Raw crisp crunchy celery sticks are great to have on hand for mid-afternoon snack attacks. Wash, clean and chop the celery up into sticks and store them in an airtight container in the fridge, ready to munch on with some home-made dips like hummus (chickpea dip) and baba ghannooj (smoky eggplant dip) or batinjan m'tabal (like baba ghannooj but excluding tahini).
Chopped celery combined with tuna and corn make a great sandwich or wrap filling.
The best known celeriac dish is the salad céleri-rémoulade of julienne strips dressed with mustard-flavoured mayonnaise. Celeriac soup and celeriac chips are some of the other uses of this root vegetable. When preparing celeriac, cut them into a bowl of acidulated water or rub them with lemon as it tends to discolour quite rapidly.
Celery seeds have the same taste and aroma of the vegetable and are used as a seasoning in soups and pickles. In Food , Waverley Root notes that medieval magicians put celery seeds in their shoes in order to fly but that this practice was abandoned with the invention of the aeroplane.
The Chinese prefer the strongly flavoured Asian celery (kun choi ). (The European celery is - very imaginatively - called sai kun , "Western celery".)
Asian celery is of the same family as Western celery but has evolved into something quite different. Smaller - with stalks usually less than 1.5 cm in diameter, it is intensely aromatic. It can be found in parsley-like bunches in most Asian food stores.
Both the stalks and leaves of Asian celery are eaten. Its stronger flavour and tougher texture limits its raw-state use to garnishing. A sprinkle of finely diced stalks and shredded leaves can be added to clear Asian soupy dishes such as Vietnamese pho and Indonesian soto .
It is also excellent stir-fried, on its own as a vegetable dish or with meat (especially beef), poultry, seafood or other vegetables. When stir-frying, cut it into matchstick lengths and fry for a minute of two first to bring out the flavour before adding other ingredients.
Health Benefits of Celery
Whilst most modern references attribute minimal nutritional value to celery, it is valued in Chinese culture as a tonic, particularly the more intensely flavoured Asian celery. It is said to have a calming effect on the stomach and liver and to assist in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. These attributes makes celery a natural accompaniment to high cholesterol foods such as squid (see recipe).
The "5 Greens" juice, a combination of celery, green capsicum, green apple, cucumber and bitter gourd, is supposed to be the ultimate health juice for lowering cholesterol, cleansing and digestion. I have to admit that the bitter gourd part has proved too challenging for me first thing in the morning!
Recipe: Stir-Fried Squid with Asian Celery
(Serves 2 - 3 as part of a Chinese meal)
If you can't find Asian celery, substitute European celery. You'll have a milder tasting dish but just as delicious and nutritious.
Make sure you have all your ingredients ready to go as the cooking times are very short and you need to work fast so as not to overcook the squid.
About 250 g squid, cleaned weight (preferably baby squid if available)
1 bunch Asian celery (about 250 g)
Oil for stir-frying
1 tsp finely minced fresh ginger
1 tsp light soy sauce
Shake of white pepper
½ tsp cornflour blended with a little water
1 tsp sesame oil
- Prepare the Squid
Although cleaning baby squid is tedious, it does give better results. With 450 g of whole baby squid, you will get a cleaned weight of around 225 g, including tendrils. If cleaning doesn't appeal, use about 225 - 250g cleaned whole tubes.
After cleaning, cut down one side of the tube and open it flat on a shopping board.
Use a sharp knife to score a fine grid pattern on the skin side. Cut into rectangles about 6 cm x 3 cm. The narrow ends will obviously be smaller.
- Wash celery well. Cut into 5 cm lengths.
- Heat 1 - 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok set over high heat. Stir-fry celery with a pinch of salt for 1 - 2 minutes and a splash of water. Remove from the wok.
- Add a further 1 - 2 tablespoons oil to the wok. When smoking hot, add the ginger and squid, including tendrils. Stir fry for a few minutes until squid pieces curl and turn opaque white.
- Add soy sauce, salt, pepper and sugar. Return the celery to the pan and allow mixture to boil furiously for a minute so the flavours can blend. Thicken the sauce with a little cornflour mixed with water.
- Remove to a serving plate and drizzle with sesame oil. Serve immediately with steamed rice.