For the uninitiated, a step into the produce section at an Asian market is like a crash course in plant taxonomy. Head over to the area where they keep the leafy greens and it’s hard not to be astounded by the sheer variety and volume. Some plants will instantly grab your attention, like the crimson-tinted leaves of amaranth, while others are a little bit harder to parse, such as the awfully similar looking stalks and leaves of tatsoi and yu choy.
For anyone who’s ever wondered what exactly what to do with a bounty of Asian greens, or just curious about what they taste like, here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular. Even if you don’t live near an Asian grocer, they’re popping up more and more at farmers’ markets and even regular grocery stores, so keep an eye out for these vegetables. They might just turn out to be your new go-to greens.
1. Bok Choy
Bok choy is by far the most widely available Asian green, well-known as the quintessential stir fry vegetable. But a little bit of clarification is necessary. There are two cultivars commonly sold as bok choy. One is the peppery, hardier white and dark green variety with slightly frilly leaves, which can grow to be quite large and robust. The other is Shanghai bok choy, which has greenish color throughout and flat, silky leaves. It’s a bit more delicate in taste and texture and is typically harvested while still on the small side. Baby bok choy of either variety is simply its young, more tender form (known as “bok choy sum” in Cantonese). Look for bunches that stand tightly and firmly together and are free of yellow spots.
Bok choy can be steamed, stir fried, or braised. But whatever the method, you want to aim for stalks that just lose their rawness while still retaining their crunch. Our Sauteéd Bok Choy recipe is a great introduction to the vegetable, perfect for serving alongside proteins. You’ll also find it tucked into dumplings, like in our Spicy Miso Soup with Bok Choy Wontons. Bok choy is an important part of many soups, stews, and noodle bowls as well, such as this Seared Steak with Spicy Rice Noodles recipe.
In terms of taste and texture, tatsoi isn’t terribly far off from Shanghai bok choy. But it has a lollipop-like shape, with long, slender stems and rounded leaves. It can be prepared in the same ways as bok choy, but it’s particularly light and tender qualities mean that it can even be nice raw. This Winter Tatsoi Salad is a great example.
3. Yu Choy
Although similar to tatsoi and and bok choy, yu choy has a faintly bitter and spicy taste to it. Young yu choy (yu choy sum) has tender and snappy stalks and teardrop shaped leaves. But the more mature the plant gets, the hardier and thicker those stalks become. It’s often boiled or steamed and served whole, such as in this recipe for Yu Choy Sum with Garlic and Sesame.
4. Gai Lan
Gai lan is also known as Chinese broccoli, and indeed the original Chinese forms of Americanized dishes such as stir fried beef with broccoli feature it. There’s no mistaking gai lan for Western broccoli, however: it has long, thin stalks and a head dominated by broad leaves, with just a few hints of beady flowers in between. It has a bitterness that is pronounced, but not intense. It’s available in both its mature form as well as a baby form (sometimes referred to as the “tips”), which cooks rather quickly.
Gai lan is excellent for tucking into stir fries, such as this Gai Lan and Shiitake Stir-Fried Brown Rice. It’s also nice in a bowl of jook (the rice porridge also known as congee)—check out our Brown Rice and Gai Lan Jook recipe.
5. En Choy (Amaranth)
Amaranth, a group of plants consisting of about sixty different species, is grown and consumed throughout the world. It’s also the source of amaranth grain. In Asian countries, however, mainly the leaves and stems are consumed. Amaranthus cruentus (purple amaranth), a variety with reddish-tinted leaves, tends to be the easiest to find in stores. It has very delicate stems with leaves that wilt and cook quickly, exuding a bright pink juice along the way. Try quickly stir frying it over high heat, as shown in this recipe for Stir Fried Pink Amaranth Greens.
6. Ong Choy
Also known as Chinese spinach or water morning glory, ong choy is distinguished by its firm and crunchy stems that are hollow in the middle. Just as with tubular pasta, those holes are great for holding sauce. Although it’s found throughout Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine, the Thai dish Pad Pak Bung Fai Daeng might just be the most famed of them all—street vendors are known for tossing the greens through the air from wok to the plate. Calling for a chile, garlic, oyster sauce, and fish sauce base, you can try out the recipe for it (sans tossing) here.
7. Gai Choy (Chinese Mustard Greens)
There are a few different plants belonging to the mustard family that are used throughout Asian cuisine, but gai choy is generally the one we’re talking about when talking about Chinese mustard greens. They kind of look like a cross between a head of romaine and a cabbage, with broad, ribbed stems and ruffled leaves. As you might expect, they carry a sinus-clearing bite, although this is tempered somewhat through cooking. Thick and hardy, they take especially well to stews and braises—this recipe for Mustard Greens with Chicken and Roast Pork Rice for shows how its done. They also are used to make dua chua, an addictive sour pickle that is used as an accompaniment in Vietnamese cuisine.
8. Kan Choy (Chinese Celery)
It seems like nowadays the celery you buy in supermarkets doesn’t have much celery-ness to it. That is, it’s kind of watery and bland. Chinese celery, however, is a reminder of what it’s supposed to be like. Earthy and bitter, with a flavor that approaches that of parsley, it has long, thin, and flexible stalks that are usually chopped up into shorter pieces. And even better, it usually comes with its leaves, which are also edible. You can add it to soups for flavor, or take advantage of its crunch in fried dishes like this recipe for Garlic Shrimp.
9. Sui Choy (Napa Cabbage)
Napa cabbage is a pale, lightly peppery veggie that is used throughout China, Korea, and Japan. It can be stir fried, braised, cooked into soups, and even used raw as a part of a salad or slaw. It’s most famous use, however, is definitely in paekchu kimchi, the classic Korean cabbage pickle. Our Basic Napa Cabbage Kimchi recipe shows you how to make it at home.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.