Have you been awed by the array of Asian vegetables at an Asian market? Knowing some of these and their various name variations should help you choose some to cook with.
Many Asian reference books and cookbooks are quite difficult to understand. It took me a while to compile and write the information below in a way I could understand and appreciate myself.
I hope this list becomes a good starting point for many who are interested in Chinese cooking to get to know some common Chinese vegetables. Pictures of these vegetables are included as much as possible. Use them to spot them in your local market and learn how to prepare them.
The list is quite long so you might want to jump quickly to the vegetable you are looking for:
I discover that many of the English names of Asian vegetables are transliterated from the Cantonese dialect rather than from Mandarin. This is probably due to the Cantonese being the earliest immigrants to the West. A good example of this is bok choy. The Mandarin name is 小白菜 (xiao bai cai). I will include the Mandarin name as transliterated in hanyu pinyin.
Names of the vegetables may also vary from region to region. You can see some lively discussions over names in the comments section below.
Bean sprouts 豆芽 (dou ya)
A plate of blanched bean sprouts. Photo by Charles Haynes
Bean sprouts is a generic term for sprouts from any kind of beans. However in Chinese cuisine, it generally refers to either the mung bean sprouts or the soy bean sprouts.
Bitter melon 苦瓜 (ku gua)
Bitter melons in various sizes. Photo by Seth Anderson
Bitter melon 苦瓜 (ku gua) is a fruit of a climbing vine. It is pale green and cucumber-like with a bumpy, grooved skin. The centre of the fruit is white and spongy with the seeds embedded within. Click for more information and recipes.
Bok choy or pak choy 小白菜 (xiao bai cai)
A plate of baby bok choy at a hotpot dinner. Photo by Phoebe Lim
The napa cabbage is also known as the celery cabbage and the peking cabbage 北京白菜 (bei jing bai cai). The scientific name is brassica pekinensis. So named as it is grown in Peking (the old name of Beijing, the capital of China). It should not be mistaken with the common green cabbage (Brassica oleracea) which is round. Click for more information and recipes.
Shark fin squash 鱼翅瓜 (yu ci gua)
Doesn't the flesh look like shark fin? Photo by Phoebe Lim
Taro root is a starchy tuber. It is a vegetable as well as a staple. There are so many ways to use this root. It can be roasted, sliced and fried, boiled and mashed or grated and shaped. It is also known as cocoyam or dasheen.
There is a popular dish in Singapore Chinese restaurants where mashed taro is shaped into a ring and deep-fried. It is then used to hold stir-fried bell peppers, pork nuggets and cashew nuts. It is yummy.
It is also a key ingredient in sweet dessert known as bubur chacha.
Another popular dessert is what we commonly call the yam paste. It is a traditional Teochew festive dish. Lots of lard mixed with ground taro and sugar.
For soups, it is best to be cut into cubes or thin slices and fried before adding to the soup.
Caution: It is not very good for people with diabetes.
There is a substance just below the skin of the taro root which can cause skin irritation. Use a glove when peeling the taro root and wash the peeled flesh well.
Taro root must be cooked thoroughly. It can be boiled or steamed or microwaved. There are other ways to use taro root, only limited by the chef’s imagination.
Water chestnuts 马蹄 (ma ti) or 荸荠 (bi ji)
A basketfull of unwashed water chestnuts. Photo by Richard Allaway
Water chestnuts are small edible tubers with pointed tops and about the size of a table tennis ball.
It has a tough rough skin with sweet, juicy and crunchy white flesh. It has a pleasant flavour. It can be a pain to peel and I'm glad the supermarkets now sell them peeled and washed.
It is usually finely diced and added to stuffing mainly for their crisp texture, juiciness and sweetness. Many wonton fillings contain water chestnuts.
Water chestnuts could be eaten raw as a snack on its own.
Water spinach 空心菜 (kong xin cai)
Notice the hollow stems? Photo by Clay Irving
Water spinach 空心菜 (kong xin cai) is also known as ong choy, kang kong, water convolvulus, swamp cabbage and water morning glory. It is one of the most common and most popular asian vegetables. Click for more information and recipes.
Wolfberry leaves 枸杞叶 (gou qi ye)
Wolfberry leaves come from goji plants from Northern China. Goji berries are also from these plants. As a vegetable, it is mostly used in soups and congee. It is commonly paired with pig’s liver or salted eggs. In recent years, wolfberry leaves have been dried and processed into tea. Prepare them as you would Chinese green or oolong tea.
Goji leaves are commonly consumed in Spring. It strengthens the liver by assisting in detoxing the tiny blood vessels in the liver. This in turns improves eyesight, helps the spleen and kidneys. Here is a recipe for lowering blood pressure.
Wolfberry leaves are considered cooling. It has a slight bitter taste. It cooks quickly and is more suited to the quick boiling technique. Only the leaves are used. The stems are too tough and woody.
I started helping out in the kitchen when I was fairly young. My grandmother did not like the idea of me holding a knife. So, I was shown how to prepare Asian vegetables into bite-sized pieces by plucking, peeling and pinching by hand.
I was often directed to a corner of the kitchen floor with a bunch of vegetables, a stack of newspapers to lay on the floor, and a red round plastic strainer for placing the vegetables for washing. I spent many happy hours preparing Asian vegetables for the family meals. It felt good to be a part of the effort to prepare the family dinner.
I missed those days!
I hope this Asian vegetables list is useful. Let me know whether there are any Chinese vegetables you think should be included. Vegetables, especially root vegetables are very good for making stocks too.