See many 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 Asian vegetable 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.
The list is quite long so you might want to jump quickly to the vegetable you are looking for:
Leafy Vegetables: Bok Choy | Chinese Broccoli | Chinese Lettuce | Chinese Spinach | Chinese Watercress | Choy Sum | Chrysanthemum Leaves | Napa Cabbage | Sweet Potato Leaves | Water Spinach | Wolfberry leaves
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 is a generic term for sprouts from any kind of beans. However in Chinese cuisine, it generally refers to either the mung bean sprouts 绿豆芽 (lui dou ya) or the soy bean sprouts 黄豆芽 (huang dou ya). More information and recipes about the bean sprouts.
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. The flesh is bitter. Click for more information and recipes.
Also known as chinese white cabbage, pak choy (another transliteration of the cantonese), 白菜 (bai cai) and chinese chard. In Taiwan, it seems to be known as 青江菜 (qing jiang cai). Click for more information and recipes.
Chinese broccoli is known as 芥兰 (gai lan) in mandarin. It has thick leaves and stems. I find the leaves bitter while the stems succulent.
It is not usually used in soups but when it is, the leaves are usually chopped rather finely and the stems either cubed or sliced thinly.
Chinese lettuce is known as sang choy in Cantonese and (sheng cai) in mandarin 生菜. In Taiwan it is known as 莴苣 (wo ju). It is used in quick soups because it cooks so fast.
It is more commonly known as 西洋菜 which literally means "western vegetable". It is usually prepared in long simmering soups. Click for more information and recipes.
Choy sum is also known as the chinese flowering cabbage, 菜心 (cai xin), yow choy, and yow choy sum (those with yellow flowers). It is also a common vegetables in quick soups. Click for more information and recipes.
Chrysanthemum leaves is known as tong ho or 茼蒿 (tang ho). I have only seen it prepared it hot pots. It is slightly bitter but turns sweet after cooking. It goes extremely well with pork belly slices. Click for more information and recipes.
Daikon is the japanese name for the big white radish. It is called 白萝卜 (bai luo bo) in mandarin hanyu pinyin, and "lo bak" in Cantonese. Used in simmered soups. The longer the cooking time, the sweeter and softer daikon gets. Click for more information and recipes.
Lotus root 莲藕 (lian ou) is the root portion of the lotus plant. Great in simmered soups. Click for more information and recipes.
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. It is a very versatile vegetables and can be found in many dishes. Click for more information and recipes.
When cooked, the flesh flakes into thin shreds looking like shark fins. Another variation is known as the spaghetti squash. It is yellow in colour which is why it resembles the Italian noodle. Click for more information and recipes for shark fin squash.
Sweet potato leaves is called 地瓜叶 (di gua ye) in Taiwan, 红薯叶 (hong shu ye) in China and 番薯叶 (fan shu ye) in Southeast Asia. All variations because sweet potato has different names in different locales.
The leaves is shaped like an inverted heart and can grow very large. Before cooking, the leaves and stems look and feel like they could be tough. But they are not. The leaves turn soft and tender when cooked. They taste like Chinese spinach but is even nicer. Sorry, Chinese spinach.
They are highly nutritious. They contain high levels of Vitamin A and C, and riboflavin, thiamin, folic acid and niacin. Not forgetting trace minerals like magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, potassium and iron. Click for more information and recipes for sweet potato leaves.
Taro root is a starchy tuber. It is a vegetable as well as a root. 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 called 佛本飘香 (fo ben piao xiang) Yam Ring 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 a key ingredient in a 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 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) 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. Many Southeast Asian soups contain this vegetables. Click for more information and recipes.
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 detoxing the tiny blood vessels in the liver. This in turns improves eyesight, helps the spleen and kidneys.
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.
冬瓜 (dong gua) looks like a water melon but is actually a squash. It has little taste but absorbs the flavours of the food it is cooked with. Click for more information and recipes.
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.