Perusing the array of exotic vegetables available at farmers’ markets and Asian groceries is a bit like meeting distant relatives at a family gathering – they look vaguely familiar, but you don’t know their names and aren’t quite sure if you’ll get along. With proper introductions, however, you just might end up bringing them home for dinner.
While Asian products like oyster sauce and rice noodles have become as familiar to non-Asian shoppers as tomato sauce and pasta, others such as the vegetables in the produce section are still a mystery. Leafy greens, for instance, are common in Far Eastern cookery, but the typical varieties differ from those found in Western cuisines and leave even the most adventurous cooks occasionally wondering how they are used.
If you’re left limp by iceberg lettuce but still baffled by bok choy, let this quick market guide help you get acquainted with some tasty Asian greens:
Market aliases: pak choi, pechay [Filipino], Chinese chard
Along with Napa cabbage (to which it is closely related), bok choy has found a regular spot in American supermarkets. Its Cantonese name means ‘white vegetable’, thanks to white stems set off by large dark green leaves. Immature, or ‘baby’, bok choy is a lighter green all over and may be prepared in the same manner.
Best served: Stir-fried with oyster sauce or added to clear broth soups. In the Philippines, thinly sliced bok choy is a favored ingredient in pancit (noodle) dishes.
Kangkong (left, in header photo)
Market aliases: water spinach, morning glory, rau muong (Vietnamese), ong choy (Cantonese)
Kangkong is the Tagalog name for this mild-tasting aquatic vegetable that unfortunately has been classified as a ‘noxious weed’ by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Nevertheless, it is quite edible and a common ingredient in Filipino, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines.
Best served: Braised in garlic, soy sauce and vinegar (adobo), simmered in a spicy coconut sauce or lightly battered and deep-fried.
Market aliases: kai lan, Chinese broccoli
Unlike the familiar tight florets atop thick stalks associated with Italian broccoli, gai lan has large tender leaves, long slender stalks and a loose cluster of flowering buds at its center. It has a slightly more bitter flavor than its European counterpart, but interestingly, a hybrid of the two produces a mild child called broccolini.
Best served: Stir-fried with garlic and ginger or steamed and coated with oyster sauce. Use gai lan instead of those florets in your favorite beef and broccoli recipe, or try this one.
Market aliases: mustasa [Filipino], mustard leaf
Mustard leaves are common ingredients throughout African, European, Asian and American regional cookery. They have a mild biting flavor that is best showcased when pickled, although fresh mustard leaves impart a perky, piquant taste when used raw. Filipino Chef Claude Tayag, who specializes in regional Kapampangan cuisine, offers mustasa-wrapped deep-fried catfish in a Pinoy twist on Japanese temakizushi (hand-rolled sushi).
Best served: Pickled or stir-fried. Pointing to similar antecedents, pickled mustard leaves are called achar in India and atchara in the Philippines.
Market alias: Japanese mustard
Belonging to the same family as the aforementioned mustasa, mizuna’s serrated leaves have a peppery flavor that is similar to arugula and delicious when served fresh in salads.
Best served: Stir-fried, used raw in salads and sandwiches, or added to soups such as the Japanese one-pot dish called nabemono.
Recipe: Kangkong in Spicy Coconut Sauce
Kangkong’s arrowhead-shaped leaves turn bright green when cooked and its mild flavor is reminiscent of spinach. Bunches of kangkong with their distinctive hollow stems are now a common sight at many Twin Cities farmers’ markets as well as in Asian stores, so pick some up and give it a try. The following recipe is based on a Filipino dish called gising-gising, which literally means ‘wake up’, thanks to its liberal use of hot chiles to perk up dormant tastebuds.
To prepare kangkong, strip the lower leaves from the stems, then cut off about an inch from the ends. Chop stems and leaves into ½-inch pieces, place in a colander and rinse well, shaking off any excess water.
1 Tbsp canola oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
3 ounces ground pork; for additional flavor, try a seasoned raw sausage such as chorizo
1 can coconut milk
1 bunch kangkong, stems and leaves washed then chopped into ½” pieces (about 2 cups)
2-3 bird’s eye chiles, sliced thinly on the diagonal, or 2 tsps dried red chili flakes
Patis (fish sauce)
Heat oil in a wok or large sauté pan over medium heat, add onions and garlic, and sauté until soft. Add ground pork and stir-fry until meat is cooked through.
Pour coconut milk into the pan and bring to a gentle simmer. Let simmer until thickened and reduced by about one-third. Toss in kangkong leaves and stems, and sliced chilis. Bring sauce back to a gentle simmer and continue cooking until it is reduced a bit more, about 5-7 minutes. Add patis by ¼ teaspoonfuls until desired flavor is achieved.
Remove pan from heat and let sit for a couple of minutes before serving to allow the coconut sauce to thicken. Serve with steamed rice.
Tracey Paska lives, eats and writes in Manila, Philippines, where she revels in the fact that she can wear flip-flops outdoors in January. When she's not exploring Manila's foodscape, she freelances for a national food magazine and writes about the complex and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle. Her last post for us was: Chicken Galantina.