Know Your Asian Greens

If you've ever visited an Asian grocery store, chances are you've found yourself in the produce section wondering what all those green leafy vegetables are, and how to cook them. Each vegetable has its own taste and texture; from the crunchy gai lan to the spicy, mustard-y gai choy. As with most greens, these can be steamed, stir-fried, stewed, braised, chopped and cooked in dumplings, and cooked in soups. In this post, I'll demystify some of them for you.

Napa Cabbage (Chinese Cabbage) is probably the most well-known as it's also available in non-Asian supermarkets. It's a large vegetable with white stalks and pale green leaves arranged cruciferously. The shape is oblong. Napa has a mild taste and a soft texture when cooked. It's the key ingredient in Korean kimchi. Napa is best used in stir-fries and soups.

Gai Lan (Chinese Broccoli) is a slightly bitter dark green vegetable with thick, glossy stalks, large leaves, and small vestigal flower heads in the center very similar to broccoli. It's a little more bitter than broccoli. It's usually steamed and served with oyster sauce, although it can be used in stir fries.

Snow Pea Shoots have long stems with many leaves, and are stir-fried with garlic, cooked in soups, or eaten raw.

Bok Choy is a vegetable sold in either mature or baby form. Mature bok choy has white stems and dark green leaves; baby bok choy is light green in color. Best used in stir fries, braises, soups, stews, and steamed.

Choy Sum is very similar to bok choy in that it has white stems and dark green leaves, but it is much thinner. Used the same way as bok choy.

Tatsoi is very similar to bok choy, but with rounder leaves. Cooked the same way.

Gai Choy (Chinese Mustard) is a large vegetable that is a dark yellowish-green color. Usually some of the stems and leaves are curled. It has a bit of a spicy "bite" to it. It's pickled, stir fried, stewed, and braised.

Mizuna is a leafy Japanese vegetable that is used in a Japanese soup called nabemono. The taste is a combination of bitter and peppery. The leaves are dark green and serrated; the stalks are narrow and white. Both leaves and stalks are edible. Can also be stir fried, pickled, and eaten in salads.

Taro Leaves are large, elephant ear-shaped, and dark green. Primarily found in Filipino and Southeast Asian dishes. The leaves contain oxalic acid and should not be eaten with milk or other foods rich in calcium as this causes your body to produce calcium oxalate, which causes kidney stones. In the Philippines, taro leaves are stewed in coconut milk with fish to make a dish called laing. In Pakistan and North India, the leaves are rolled in batter, fried, and spiced. In South India, the leaves are steamed and pickled.

En Choy looks a lot like purple spinach and is sometimes called "Chinese spinach" or amaranth. Characterized by large dark green leaves with purple in the centers and crunchy green stems, it is related to beets. Like beets, the red color comes from the betalain pigment. Like spinach, it wilts easily, and does well when it is lightly steamed or stir fried.

Kang Kong is a type of water spinach in East and Southeast Asia. It's dark green in color, with smooth arrowhead-shaped leaves and long green stems. Often stir-fried with oyster sauce or yellow soybean paste, and garlic and chillies.

Chrysanthemum Greens have flat, serrated leaves and a bitter taste. Very different from the chrysanthemum plants used as ornamental plants - this particular species is known as Chrysanthemum coronarium. Used in tempura, Taiwanese oyster omelets, and soups/hot pots. Goes by various names: tong hao in Chinese, shungiku or kikuna in Japanese, ssukgat in Korean and cải cúc or tần ô in Vietnamese.

Sweet Potato Leaves are a popular vegetable in Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine where they are stir-fried with garlic and spices, and cooked in soups. The leaves are dark green and pitchfork-shaped.

Related:
Five Ways To Eat Bok Choy
Recipe Review: Chinese Broccoli and Five-Spice Sauce
Ingredient Spotlight: Lotus Root
Ingredient Spotlight: Moringa Leaves
Seasonal Spotlight: Shiso
Cooking Korean: Soondubu jjigae
Lahpet: Burmese Pickled Tea

(Images: Kathryn Hill)

(Originally posted October 22, 2009)

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