Chinese greens: A field guide

Here in Hong Kong, the average vegetable stall boasts a bewildering number of variations on the “leafy green” theme..

Piles of pak choy nestle alongside crinkly pale-green cabbages, and opportunistic wasps buzz around heaps of choy sum, searching for the plant’s tiny yellow flowers. Some look alike but are cooked differently, some look different but taste the same, and most have choy (or cài 菜 in Mandarin) – meaning “vegetable” – in their names, which vary from place to place anyway. Maximum cabbage complexity.

In an attempt to end my own confusion, I’ve decided to create The Ultimate Field Guide to Chinese Greens. I plan to add to the list below over time and add recipes as I go, so there’s really no excuse not to eat your choy now…

Chinese cabbage / 大白菜 / dà bái cài

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Once upon a time, Chinese cabbages were the only green vegetables available during northern China’s long cold winter. Come autumn, Beijingers would hoard piles of dàbáicài, stuffing them into roof spaces and stacking them on balconies, and serving them up from November until the springtime thaw. As a result, they’re an important element of northern Chinese cuisine – 90% of the conversations I eavesdropped on in our local market in Beijing were about the price of cabbage. The crisp, gently mustard-flavoured leaves are stuffed into dumplings, stir-fried, pickled and stewed. Also known as napa cabbage, Chinese leaf, and – apparently – wombok.

Choy sum / 菜心 / cài xīn

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Like mah jong and polite pro-democracy protests, choy sum is big in Hong Kong. It turns up everywhere from fancy banquet tables to the humble dai pai dong street stalls. Often, a stem or two is blanched and served atop a bowl of noodles, or it appears as a standalone dish stir-fried with garlic, ginger and a dash of soy sauce. Some cooks prefer to remove the clusters of yellow flowers, but there’s no harm in leaving them.

Gai lan / 芥蓝 / jiè lán

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Give gai lan a chance! For a long time, I thought that gai lan was essentially rubbish choy sum. It turns out that that’s not the case – I was just cooking it incorrectly. Gai lan is more bitter and its stems are tougher than choy sum, so it’s best to blanch it first before you stir-fry it, apparently, rather than serving it up with overcooked leaves and an undercooked stem {ahem}. Also known as Chinese broccoli, you may find gai lan with tiny white flowers – as shown above.

Pak choy / 小白菜 / xiǎo bái cài

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Pak choy comes in a range of colours combinations and sizes: regular pak choy with dark green leaves and white stems, baby pak choy, elegant Shanghai green pak choy (Shànghǎi qīng 上海青) with pale green stems, and baby Shanghai greens. All of these are cooked in the same way: stir-fried with shiitake mushrooms or chopped garlic and ginger, blanched or served in soup. While the flavours are similar, I find the large white-stemmed pak choy watery and a little uninspiring – if you have a choice, opt for the baby varieties, or Shanghai greens, which have a slightly stronger flavour.

Purple amaranth / 苋菜 / xiàn cài

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It doesn’t seem possible to buy a small bunch of purple amaranth at my market – it’s a carrier bag-full or nothing – perhaps because that huge bunch melts away to nothing when you cook it. The tender leaves release quantities of pinkish purple juice, making this a colourful addition to your dinner table (just as long as you were planning on serving pink soup). My favourite way of cooking this is to stir-fry it with fermented tofu, which may sound odd and unappealing but isn’t – recipe coming soon to convert any doubters!

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