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Say it with Sprouts
The crunchy texture and sweet taste of bean sprouts adds flavor to many Chinese dishes.  
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First, a bit of clarification.  By bean sprouts I am referring to mung bean sprouts, the distinctive plump silver sprouts with two yellowish "horns" at one end and a scraggly tail that come from the sprouted seeds of the mung bean plant.

The Chinese have been growing mung bean sprouts (nga choy or nga choi) for approximately 3,000 years.  However, the popularity of bean sprouts in the west is a more recent phenomenon. Many of us first got turned on to sprouts during the health conscious seventies, when we began piling them onto green salads or in tofu burgers.  And why not? Not only are bean sprouts high in protein, vitamin C and Folacin, but they are a dieter's dream. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one cup of bean sprouts contains a mere twenty-six calories. They are low in salicylate, a naturally occurring chemical in plants that some individuals have difficulty tolerating. (Aspirin is acetyl salicylic acid). In Chinese medicine bean sprouts are considered to be a yin or cooling food.

Both the texture and taste of mung bean sprouts - crunchy with a delicate hint of sweetness - enhances a number of popular Chinese dishes, from Egg Rolls to stir-fries and salads. In The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson notes that stir-frying bean sprouts releases a protein that isn't available when they are eaten raw. However, to maintain their crisp texture, they shouldn't be stir-fried longer for longer than about thirty seconds.  

You call them bean sprouts and we call them moyashi.  Yet, the only thing he knows at the moment is that they are delicious.

Photo reprinted with permission from the Daisey Machinery Co. Ltd site

Today, China and India are the main producers of mung beans, not surprising given their popularity in both of these Asian countries.  When it comes to importing, the United States is one of the leading customers. This is good news for consumers since it means that mung bean sprouts are easily obtainable at western supermarkets.  When purchasing mung bean sprouts, look for plumper ones that are not stringy or discoloured.  If not using them immediately, place in a plastic bag with a few drops of water, seal and keep in the refrigerator.  Stored in this manner, they will last for one or two days.  If you need to keep them longer, you can try covering them with cold water and storing in a sealed jar in the refrigerator.  If the water is changed every two days, they should last for up to a week.  However, since they are so easy to find, I prefer to wait and purchase them just before using.  Also, mung bean sprouts can be frozen if they are to be used in cooking.    

Of course, another option is to grow your own. The procedure is quite simple: begin by washing 1/2 cup of mung beans and draining, then soaking overnight in water.  Drain the soaked beans and place them in a large glass jar (one that holds 4 cups or 32 ounces) and cover with water.  Place a piece of cheesecloth or similar material over the jar, using a rubber band to hold it in place.  Change the water once a day.  After several days the sprouts will be plump and long.  Rinse them, drain and refrigerate.   

You will sometimes find recipes calling for silver sprouts; these are bean sprouts that have had their ends removed.  In The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, Barbara Tropp notes that servants used to perform this chore in Chinese households.  I can believe it.  Not only is trimming the sprouts consuming, but it's done for aesthetic purposes only.  I skip this step unless I'm serving guests.  

On a health-related note, mung bean sprouts have been linked to incidences of food borne illnesses such as Salmonella.  Government officials in both Canada and the United States are working with growers to implement safer growing methods. In the meantime, you can reduce the risk significantly by cooking the sprouts in soups or stir-fries. 

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