Farmers Market Guide to Asian Vegetables

Janet McGarry, Foodwise (formerly CUESA) Volunteer
November 21, 2012

Here’s a brief, and by no means comprehesive, guide to some of the Asian vegetables you’ll find at the market. Asian greens and root vegetables grow best in the fall through the winter. Heat-loving squash and beans are harvested in the late summer and fall months.

Bitter melon: Bitter melon looks like a cucumber with light green, warty, wrinkled skin. Its bitter taste is caused by quinine, which has medicinal qualities. Blanching or salting reduces the melon’s bitterness. Mature melons can be cooked unpeeled, but their seeds and pith should be removed. Bitter melon is often stuffed with meat or seafood, used in curries, or added to stir-fries.

Bok choy: All parts of this “Chinese cabbage”—stalks, leaves, and young flowering shoots—are edible when young or mature. Many bok choy varieties have dark green leaves and firm white stalks that are crunchy and juicy with a cabbage-like taste. Baby bok choy is tender and delicious sautéed with garlic or added to soups.

Chinese broccoli: In contrast to the Italian broccoli found in most American markets, Chinese broccoli or kale, or gai lan, has thin stems, small flower buds, and blue-green leaves. The crunchy stems, which are more tender and sweet than the Italian variety, are rich in calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.

Chinese long bean: Also called “yardlong beans” because they can grow up to three feet long, these beans are immature cow pea pods (related to black-eyed peas). Chinese long beans are denser and crunchier than green beans and can be found in different colors, from light and dark green to purple. 

Daikon radish: Daikon, which means “great root” in Japanese, has a crispy, crunchy texture with a sweeter, less pungent flavor than most radishes. It’s a common ingredient in many Asian dishes, including Korean kimchi and Japanese pickles. Daikon can be shredded, pickled, and eaten raw, or added to stews and soups, like other root vegetables. Its young leaves and seeds, which taste slightly peppery, are also edible.

Lemongrass: Lemongrass is a heat-loving perennial with a tall, woody stalk, grassy leaves, and a bulbous end. The white inner stem six inches above the base is the part most used in cooking. When bruised, it releases a lemony flavor, popular in Thai cuisine. Lemongrass, like bay leaf, is typically removed from a dish before eating.

Mizuna: Mizuna, also known as Japanese mustard green or spider mustard, is probably originated in China but has been grown in Japan since ancient times. It has feathery, frond-like bright green leaves that taste similar to arugula but are milder and sweeter. It’s often eaten raw in salads, but the leaves can also be steamed, sautéed, or pickled.

Moqua: Shaped like a cucumber with splotchy green skin, this “hairy gourd” has a light, neutral flavor like a zucchini, which makes it a versatile cucurbit to cook with. It can also be pickled or used to make a refreshing drink. The fuzzy covering on young gourds, which have the best texture, can be removed by scrubbing or peeling.

Napa cabbage: Also known as “Chinese cabbage,” Napa cabbage is truer to the description, with its tight, white head and mild flavor, which is well-suited to slaws and sautés.

Opo: The “bottle gourd” has pale green skin and a mild taste. The po qwa variety is frequently used in stir-fries and soups, but it can also be hollowed out, stuffed, and baked. In Japan, dried strips of the gourd’s flesh, kampyo, are used to flavor maki sushi and to tie bundles of food for steaming.

Sinqua: Also known as “luffa,” sinqua can be found in angled and smooth varieties. Angled luffa looks like a zucchini with ridges that run lengthwise. Typically eaten when it’s young, it also tastes a bit like zucchini but sweeter. Its spongy texture soaks up the flavor of foods it’s cooked with. Smooth luffa, when grown to maturity and soaked in bleach, peeled, and dried, can be used as a household scrubber—the “loofah sponge.”

Taro: Taro tubers are starchy with a sweet, subtle taste similar to a potato but slightly nutty like a chestnut. This “potato of the tropics” is customarily offered during the Japanese moon-viewing tradition in September, and taro-filled mooncakes are eaten at the Lunar New Year celebration.

Tatsoi: Tatsoi’s round, dark green leaves grow close to the ground in tight little circles, creating pretty rosettes. The tender greens have a mustardy taste and can be eaten raw or lightly cooked in soups.

Winter melon: Winter melon has green skin covered with a waxy coating, giving it the name “wax gourd.” Chinese chefs hollow out the melons, carve dragons or other symbols into their waxy skins, and use them as decorative soup bowls. Winter melons are used in stir-fries and soups, but the flesh can also be dried and crystallized. Candied winter melon is often eaten at Lunar New Year.

Yu choy: With its thin stalks and bright yellow flowers, yu choy is similar to broccoli rabe but sweeter. Look for flower buds that are tight and just beginning to bloom. The crunchy stalks can be sautéed with garlic or oyster sauce.

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