* Chinese okra: Officially called angled luffa , these slim, ridged gourds are impossible to mistake for true okra, although there is a vague resemblance to the much tinier vegetable. When the gourds are stir-fried, their texture is delicately spongy. Chinese okra's mild flavor fits right in with any meat or seafood dish. I saute it in peanut oil and add a splash of Chinese shaoxing wine and a dash of sugar and light soy sauce for flavoring. Pare off the ridges and skin before cooking this squash.
* Bitter melon: This gourd resembles a pale green cucumber with rippled skin. Its bitter flavor is usually an acquired taste. You'll occasionally find stuffed bitter melon on the dim sum cart. Or it may be peeled, sliced and blanched for five minutes before being used in stir fries. Bitter melon is usually cooked with fermented black beans as a flavoring.
* \o7 Red spinach: \f7 The dark green leaves of this vegetable have deep red markings at their center. Sometimes called Chinese spinach, the plant isn't spinach at all but a member of the amaranth family. Some describe its taste as slightly sweet, but red spinach can be cooked and used the same ways as ordinary spinach. Try deep frying the leaves to make a crunchy garnish for meat dishes.
* \o7 Fresh water chestnuts: \f7 The fresh variety has a sweetness and nuttiness that is completely lost in canning. Although they are troublesome to peel (you have to pare off the brown rind with a sharp knife), once you've tasted fresh water chestnuts, you'll never consider the canned variety a good substitute. Water chestnuts are considered \o7 yin\f7 , or cooling, and have a reputation as a breath freshener. They cook very quickly. Many cooks stir fry them separately then mix them in to the dish at the last moment.
* \o7 Chinese celery: \f7 This vegetable reminds me of a large version of flat-leaved Italian parsley although the taste is altogether different. It has a more intense flavor than Western broad-stalk celery and gives a gentle bite to soups. It can also be used as a salad ingredient. For this use lightly steam or blanch the cut-up celery or microwave it in a glass dish with the water from washing left clinging to it. Cook it for 45 seconds to one minute on HIGH (100% power). The stems should remain crisp and turn bright green.
* \o7 Young ginger: \f7 Summer is the season for baby ginger from Hawaii. Its skin is soft and pale beige with hot pink ridges and shoots. Young ginger makes a subtle addition to any Asian dish, either added in cooking or cut into very fine strips and sprinkled on as a garnish. But it isn't a substitute for the stronger-tasting mature ginger; it's better treated as a vegetable. (The two gingers work well together.)
* \o7 Ham: \f7 Chinese cooks use ham to season everything from vegetables to seafood and fried rice. For many years cookbooks have been suggesting Smithfield Virginia ham as a substitute for the renowned but unobtainable hams of Yunnan and Che-kiang provinces. 99 Ranch Market sells Virginia ham by the slice in the meat department but they also carry a number of other wonderful Chinese-style hams made here and in Canada.
My favorite of these, made by Venus of Los Angeles, is labeled "smoked pork strips." This lean, smoky meat has a spectacular flavor and is much less salty than Virginia ham. This and other Chinese-style hams are stocked across the aisle from the produce section at the rear of the store with the Chinese sausages.
If you want to keep Virginia ham on hand to use at a moment's notice, cookbook author Irene Kuo suggests a way to preserve it: Soak a two-pound piece for an hour, wring it well and simmer in fresh water to cover for about 40 minutes. Then trim off the fat and cut the ham into two-inch wide strips. Make a syrup of two cups boiling water and one-quarter cup sugar. When the syrup is cool, pour it over the ham strips (and fat if desired) in a clean jar. Add two tablespoons of dry Sherry or \o7 shaoxing\f7 wine. Prepared this way, the ham will keep indefinitely.
* \o7 Chinese sausages: \f7 Most Chinese food lovers know these rich, sweet semi-dry sausages by their Cantonese name \o7 lop chong\f7 , and that's usually how they are labeled. 99 Ranch Market carries more than half a dozen brands of \o7 lop chong\f7 as well as a similar sausage made from pork and duck liver.
A few untraditional versions of the sausage have also come onto the market. One is made with a mixture of turkey and pork--the Chinese answer, perhaps, to chicken franks. Another brand from Seattle is made with both duck and turkey livers. Whatever their ingredients Chinese cooks usually steam these sausages either whole or in slices before combining them with other foods. This softens the meat and renders away some of the fat.