Asparagus is green, unless you are French or German

TO most of us asparagus is green, unless you are French or German. Serve green asparagus to a French or German and chances are he/she might not be amused. To these nationalities, the white asparagus is considered ‘Queen of vegetables’.

I am puzzled as all the asparagus I see here (both imported and local) are green in colour. However, I recently saw a strange looking imported white vegetable in a decidedly upmarket supermarket which I was told is the white asparagus.

It was explained to me by none other than a German native and chef at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Kuala Lumpur, Dirk Haltendorf.

A genus of the lily family, asparagus has been cultivated around the Mediterranean and enjoyed as a delicacy for 2,000 years.

It is widely regarded for its medicinal value and diuretic properties.

Asparagus is rich in vitamins A and C and minerals such as potassium and phosphorous.

Epicureans, from Aristotle to Louis XIV of France, adored it.

In Europe, asparagus is normally harvested between April and June.

According to Dirk, the Germans developed the white asparagus more than 200 years ago.

How was this done?

The young shoots were denied sunlight as they grew, by being covered with mounds of soil. They only saw daylight when the soil was removed on the day they were harvested.

Denying them sunlight (UV light in particular) means that they cannot produce chlorophyll and so do not become green.

This also gives the white asparagus a different flavour to the green version (it is less bitter and has a more intense taste, with a hint of artichoke).

Production is labour intensive and asparagus exhausts the soil quickly, so growers in Germany only produce the plant in the same field for a couple of years, then let the land rest (which explains why the price of white asparagus is high).

In the kitchen too, white asparagus requires special treatment. Before cooking, its bitter, fibrous outer skin needs to be peeled.

Asparagus peeling is an art, peel it too little and some fibre and bitterness remain, peel too much and you are wasting tasty and expensive flesh.

Dirk showed me his trusty asparagus peeling tool from Germany, and even gave me a high speed peeling demonstration.

Asparagus peeling is an art to which chefs aspire! Very few chefs are trusted by the chef de cuisine to peel the vegetable. It has to be done correctly and fast.

The peeled asparagus spears are then bundled together in bunches using a special twine tied in a special way.

The basic cooking comes as something of an anti-climax, the asparagus spears are simply steamed or boiled in lightly salted water.

Many asparagus lovers eat it with a little melted butter or Hollandaise sauce.

It can be consumed hot or cold, made into a cream soup, or wrapped in ham, bacon or crepes, and even served as a regular vegetable accompaniment to a main course, though to an asparagus lover it could never be a mere side dish.

If you enjoy green asparagus, I am sure you will appreciate the luxury of white asparagus at least as much.

Look for it in any specialist supermarket, and try it at home but remember to peel it before cooking if it is not already peeled.