The demand for Oriental greens is growing. This is due in part to an increase in Asian immigrants, but also to Americans looking for new taste sensations and making a conscious attempt to increase their vegetable intake to the FDA's "five a day" recommendation.
Oriental greens are low in calories, have high nutritional value, taste great and are quick and easy to prepare. They're traditionally stir-fried and used in Oriental recipes, but they are also easily adapted to many American dishes, from salads to pastas to soups.
Although they've probably tasted them when eating at Chinese restaurants, most American cooks are not familiar with the many types of Asian greens. It's easy to become overwhelmed with the multitude of names - often for the same vegetable! This confusion comes about because many Oriental vegetables are widely grown in various regions of Asia. As a result, a myriad of ethnic, local or descriptive terms are used for the same vegetable. There are more than 300 dialects in China alone, many more when you include other Asian nations! These are sometimes transliterated into English based on pronunciation - and many of these dialects sound similar to our Western ears, such as "choi" or "joy."
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
There are four main types of Oriental greens: Oriental mustards, Chinese broccoli, Oriental water spinach, and Chinese brassicas or cabbages. Most of these cook quickly and are more delicately flavored than their Western counterparts. They're great stir-fried, either alone or in combination with other vegetables. They're also good in one-pot dishes, casseroles and soups. The smaller "baby" varieties are great when added to salads.
The tender greens of Japanese mustards like mizuna are milder than traditional mustard greens, with a pleasant, peppery flavor. Another Japanese green, tat soi (also known as spoon cabbage) has spoon-shaped leaves and an interesting, peppery flavor somewhere between cabbage and mustard.
Oriental water spinach is also known as swamp cabbage, and is in wide use in many Asian countries, especially southern China and Viet Nam. It has long, pointed, dark green leaves with hollow, lighter-colored stems. In Asia, it is often stir-fried or added at the last minute to soups.
Chinese broccoli (also known as Chinese kale or gai lan) has short, thick stems with green flower heads and lots of flat, glossy, blue-green leaves. Unlike Western broccoli, the entire plant is eaten (stems, leaves, and flowers). Less bitter than broccoli, it can be substituted for broccoli in many Western dishes. It is popular in Cantonese cuisine, where it is often stir fried with garlic or served with oyster sauce.
One of the most popular of the Chinese greens, and one increasingly available at farmers' markets as well as supermarkets, is the Chinese cabbage. There are numerous varieties, since Chinese and Japanese plant breeders have spent hundreds of years selecting within them. There are at least 15 to 20 different varieties of the heading (Napa) cabbages, and about the same of the non-heading; Napa is the best-known heading variety, and bok choy is the best-known non-heading type. The name cabbage is misleading, because botanically, these greens are more closely related to turnips and swedes than any sort of cabbage. They are members of the mustard, or Brassicaceae, family.
Napa is more mild-flavored than the round heads of European cabbage. The slender, crisp, tubular heads resemble Romaine lettuce, but are thicker, with thin white ribs and pale green leaves. The blanched inner leaves add crispness and flavor to salads, garnishes, or an Oriental version of coleslaw. It can also be steamed, boiled, sauteed, braised and stir-fried. Popular ethnic dishes using this tender cabbage include Asian stir-fries and fried rice, Korean kimchi, and Thai Napa soup.
Bok choy is a non-heading cabbage variety with bright white, crunchy stems and dark green leaves. The stems can be used in place of celery in salads, though they have a milder taste. The dark-green leaves are rich in antioxidants and minerals and good in both raw and cooked dishes.
Bok choy is one of the oldest Oriental vegetables, and has been cultivated in China since the 5th century AD. It is becoming more common and is increasingly found in large supermarkets. Asian markets feature many kinds of choy, differing in shape and size but similar in flavor.
4 cups chopped or shredded mixed Oriental greens
1 cup minced chives
1 large carrot, grated
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon sour cream
2 teaspoons prepared honey mustard
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional) for garnish
Chop or shred the vegetables; the white bok choy stems are best sliced crosswise into thin strips. Combine mayonnaise with sour cream and mustard, and fold into the greens. Garnish with nuts, if desired. Serves four to five.
Oriental Greens Stir-Fry
1 Tablespoon oil
1 pound boneless chicken breast or thighs
2 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root
1 red or yellow bell pepper
5 to 6 cups mixed Oriental greens of your choice
1-2 Tablespoons soy sauce
Heat oil in wok or large skillet. Cook chicken, turning once, until done and opaque. Set aside.
Peel and dice the onion, garlic and ginger; Scrub the carrot and slice; wash, seed and chop the pepper. Add to the same skillet and cook about 5 minutes. Wash, slice and add white stems of bok choy. Wash the greens, drain, and add, stirring until tender. Season to taste with soy sauce. Chop the chicken and return to skillet with the greens; cook until heated through, one or two minutes.
Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.