In our opinion, the best way to get to know a far-flung culture is through its food. If you spend enough time in the globe’s cafes, markets, and street stalls, you’ll find that you encounter not just new flavors but also new ingredients. To bring back the world’s cuisine to your own kitchen, you’ll want to try out new techniques and spice mixes. To be truly authentic, you’ll want to scour the markets for the signature ingredients from the dishes you loved while you were abroad.
Or, let us do the scouring for you. Here, we hit the Asian produce stands, help you separate bok choy from yu choy from Chinese broccoli–and tell you about the dishes you can cook up with these new favorite vegetables.
Asian Vegetables We Adore
Chinese Broccoli (Gai lan)
Chinese broccoli is a dark leafy green vegetable that has a stronger and slightly more bitter flavor than common broccoli. The bitterness balances out the richness of noodle dishes like Pad See Ew and also complements the peanuts and tingly Szechuan peppercorns in our Kung Pao Tofu.
Bok choy is one vegetable with two unique parts. The leafy green tips wilt like spinach in a hot pan, while the thick white stems remain fresh and crunchy. At markets in Chinatown, you’ll see bok choy in a variety of sizes, from tender little bunches that fit in your palm to big beautiful heads that easily become half of your dinner—see this vegetarian bowl for an example of how to highlight this veggie.
Yu Choy is another variety of Chinese broccoli that has thinner stems than the typical Chinese broccoli but brings the same strong flavor and bitterness to dishes like this noodle stir fry. We sometimes use yu choy tips as a substitute for mellower bok choy.
Lotus roots are the stems of the floating lily-pad-like plants that grow throughout Asia and Australia. All parts of the plant, including the seeds, flower, and leaves are edible. The root, commonly used in stir-fries, is known for its crunchy and somewhat starchy texture. You can easily peel it with a vegetable peeler and just cut off the ends to reveal the unforgettable, flower-like interior.
Bird’s Eye Chilis
Cooks in Asia use chilies both for spice and for flavor. Each chili really does have a unique flavor—if you can get past the kick it also delivers. When we want a lot of spice, we slice open the birdseye chilis, but for a milder rendition leave your chilies whole and throw them into coconut curries or stir-fries to keep the flavor but impart way less heat. You can always work up from whole to sliced!
Chinese Long Beans
They look like green beans and taste like them too, but Chinese long beans aren’t related to green beans at all! They’re actually a type of cowpea, a robust climbing vine. It only takes up to 2 months for them to grow to be 12 to 18 inches long and ready to harvest. In Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisines, you’ll usually find them barely cooked or raw in curries, stir-fries, and salads.