Garden Journal: Curly Garlic Scapes, and a Hong Kong Recipe

Curly scapes from Music garlic are just beginning to unfurl. Sauteed, alone or in stir fries, they have a mild and delicate flavor.

Curly scapes from Music garlic are just beginning to unfurl.
Sauteed, alone or in stir fries, they have a mild and delicate flavor.

It’s Memorial Day and blistering hot. A bad omen for the summer to come. While watering the tomato plants, I checked the garlic for winners and losers. Incillium and Morado Gigante appear to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory: Both began with handsome seed cloves that barely sprouted wispy greens before disappearing. Even the original cloves have vanished, prey perhaps to marauding squirrels or voles with a taste for the exotic.

But Music, a porcelain hardneck grown all over the U.S., and Guatemalan Purple Stripe, a good performer in Southern climes, have both produced vigorous greens and curly scapes. Garlic scapes are flower stalks that shoot rapidly upwards in May to mid June, depending on your climate. As they grow, the slender tips that sport immature flower buds become curly. At this point they should be plucked in order to boost the growth of the bulb down in the soil. If you leave them in place, the stalks will straighten and toughen, and the flower buds will swell until they become bulbils or miniature above ground bulbs.

Fortunately, scapes plucked while still curly are tender and delicate in flavor. If you see them at your local farmers market, buy as many as you can and run home to cook them. Ana Sortun, chef at Oleana in Cambridge, admires the “beauties of garlic as it goes through its stages. When the scapes appear, I love to sauté them like green beans. They have such a delicate flavor. They’re also great in soups.” You can also chop them raw into salads or use them in your favorite stir fry.

In his 1989 book, Fragrant Harbor Taste: The New Chinese Cooking of Hong Kong, Ken Hom has a savory recipe for Beef and Garlic Shoots in Oyster Sauce. It uses garlic “shoots” as well as chopped “fresh” garlic. Of the shoots, Hom says, “Harvested in early spring, they add a mild and delicate perfume to food that is highly prized among Hong Kong’s discerning diners…their green tops may also be used as a garnish or flavoring.” We’ve substituted scapes for the earlier shoots, since they too are mild in flavor.

As for fresh garlic, one might use young garlic pulled about the same time as the scapes are cut. Young garlic has a smallish bulb with partly formed cloves—a sort of halfway stage between green garlic, in which bulb is essentially one large, swollen, barely undifferentiated clove, and mature garlic in which the cloves are distinct and have reached their full size. Like the scapes, young garlic’s flavor is delicate; when sauteed, the cloves become almost sweet.

Hom also calls for “young” ginger. Young stem ginger, he says, is “the newest spring growth.” The tender rhizomes are “knobby in shape and moist pink; they look naked.” If you cannot find young ginger in your market, substitute very fresh ginger that is not dried up or wrinkled. Peel it before slicing or chopping.

Garlic scapes add a mildly pungent flavor to beef stir fried with sliced ginger and oyster sauce.

Garlic scapes add a mildly pungent flavor to beef stir fried with sliced ginger and oyster sauce.

Beef and Garlic Shoots in Oyster Sauce
(adapted from Ken Hom, Fragrant Harbor Taste)


1 pound sirloin steak, beef fillet or New York strip

For the marinade:

1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar
1 egg white
2 teaspoons ginger juice (see note)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 cup peanut oil

4 cloves thinly sliced young garlic
6 to 12 garlic shoots (scapes) or whole scallions, cut into 3-inch pieces
6 slices young ginger, or peeled mature ginger, 1/4-inch thick
4 fresh or canned water chestnuts, peeled and sliced

For the sauce:

1/2 cup rich chicken stock, preferably homemade
1-1/2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice wine
1 teaspoon cornstarch


1. Put the steak in the freezer for 20 minutes or until it is firm to the touch. Cut it, against the grain, into thin slices. Whisk together the marinade ingredients, add the meat and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Mix the sauce ingredients and set aside.
2. Heat a wok or large skillet until it is hot. Add the oil and when it is quite hot (when a sliver of meat dropped in the oil sizzles madly), quickly stir fry the beef for 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the contents of the wok into a strainer set over a large bowl. Allow to drain, reserving some of the oil.
3. Reheat the wok and add 1 tablespoon of the reserved oil. Add the garlic, garlic shoots and ginger, and stir fry for 1 minute. Add the water chestnuts and continue to stir fry for 30 seconds more. Add the sauce ingredients and bring the mixture to a boil. When the sauce has thickened, return the drained beef and mix well. Serve at once with steamed white rice.

Note: To make ginger juice, grate a 1 to 1-1/2 inch piece of peeled ginger into a bowl. You should have about 1 tablespoon. Wrap the ginger in a small piece of cheesecloth, or in the corner of a clean dishtowel, and squeeze it over a bowl. This will yield 2 teaspoons or more of ginger juice.

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