You don’t have to be an Asian-leaning restaurant to use this diverse group of greens. Swap green cabbage for wong bok, use gai lan where you would broccolini, or use Shanghai pak choy instead of spinach. Their versatility and adaptability make Asian greens a no brainer for your menu.
Choy sum translates to “heart of the vegetable”, and consequently its prized part is the centre stem. Also known as a Chinese flowering cabbage, its thick, long stem and floppy green leaves often have a yellow flower sprouting on top. There is a misconception that once the plant flowers, it is overmature and bitter; however, according to grower Allan Fong, this is not true.
Choy sum has a mild flavour, similar to broccoli, with its flowers providing a mustardy tang. The leaves can be likened to young spinach. Sauté, blanch or steam choy sum and
pair with garlic, ginger, mushrooms or sesame. Soy, oyster, gochujang, kecap manis, the options are endless when it comes to dressing choy sum.
Wong bok is a type of Chinese cabbage with tightly wrapped leaves and a dense heart. Crisp and juicy, the elongated-shaped wong bok is milder in flavour than its green cabbage cousins. It has historically been one of the most important sources of nutrients during long winter seasons in China and is plentiful in the New Zealand winter too.
Wong bok is the key ingredient in the oh so popular kimchi. This fermented cabbage, similar to sauerkraut, is a staple in the Korean diet and has become a trendy menu item in New Zealand. Wong bok takes well to spice, so be generous with your seasonings. It can be eaten raw or cooked; chiffonade into a slaw, braise or use in dumpling filling. The whole leaves can be steamed and used for the wrapping of cabbage rolls; fill as you would a rice paper roll.
Shanghai Pak Choy
Originating in Shanghai, this sweet and fast-growing green is slightly smaller than the common bok choy that New Zealanders love. Crunchy green stem and vibrant tender leaves make up this versatile Asian veggie. Shanghai pak choy can be eaten raw or cooked, and its flavour sits between spinach and cabbage.
Shanghai pak choy has a sweet, mild flavour. It only needs 2–3 minutes of cooking, to preserve the texture in the stalk. Add it into broths just before serving, steam or stir-fry. Slice the bulbs down the middle and pan-fry, just enough to get colour. Use salty or sweet sauces to complement the delicate pak choy. Garnish with crispy shallots, fried garlic or sesame for added crunch.
Gai lan is commonly compared to a Chinese broccoli. We can thank gai lan for broccolini, as this is what has been cross-bred with broccoli to make the popular slender stem variety. With a very small floret, the stalk is the prized part of the plant. In Asian cuisine, texture plays an important role and the stalk of the gai lan provides this.
Both the leaves and stalk are utilised when preparing gai lan. The stalk takes more time to cook than the leaves, so they can be separated, but this isn’t necessary. Chargrill, blanch, stir-fry, or thinly slice and use raw. Serve on top of a mushroom puree with a punchy XO sauce or with caramelised shallot, garlic and ginger.
Canton Pak Choy
This dwarf pak choy can also be referred to as baby white pak choy. It orginates from the old city Canton, now known as Guangzhou. Unlike the tender leaves of the Shanghai pak choy, this variety has crunchy dark green leaves and a crisp white stalk.
With their petit size, Canton pak choy can be left whole when cooked but it is equally as good when the leaves are separated from the heart. Use Canton pak choy raw or cooked, in soups, stir-fries and salads. With its small size, 2–3 minutes will be enough to cook the pak choy.