IN SEASON: Asian Greens

Confession:  Asian greens tend to intimidate me.  For years, I walked by them at the farmers market because I couldn’t identify what they were, I didn’t know what they would taste like, or how to cook them.  With so many different varieties of Asian greens, so many unfamiliar names,  and so many variations in appearance, it can feel a bit overwhelming.
I had little experience cooking these vegetables until I started my CSA share with Harmony Valley Farm (HVF), who grows several different varieties of Asian vegetables.  Every week during the spring it seemed that HVF was throwing us another Asian green curveball to try to figure out.  
Our family no longer participates in a CSA; we choose instead to shop at area farmers markets for our produce.  There are lots of Asian growers at the farmers markets in the Twin Cities, primarily Hmong.  Though they are always friendly, sometimes there is a language barrier and it can be difficult to communicate with the vendors or ask questions.  This complicates things further.  
So I felt lucky last weekend when I came upon Kao Yang’s table at the Minneapolis Farmers Market and spoke with his son, Shur Yang, who was able to enlighten me on some of the Asian greens.  
(I just found out this morning that Shur will be a guest on the Minneapolis Farmers Market’s Fresh & Local radio show on AM950 tomorrow morning, Saturday, at 8:00 am.  Local foods website Simple Good & Tasty also wrote a profile about Shur Yang.)
The information that Shur gave me, along with bits and pieces of knowledge that I’ve accumulated over the last couple of years has allowed me to assemble some pieces of the puzzle that is Asian greens.  
What follows is a review of the various Asian vegetables that I’ve tried out over the past couple of years so I can give you some visual clues to work with next time you are wondering about these unfamiliar veggies at the local farmers market.  
Right now, the three main Asian greens I’ve found at our local market are (1) Chinese mustard greens, aka Gai Choy; (2) Chinese flowering cabbage, aka Choy Sum; and (3) Chinese white cabbage, aka Bok Choy.  
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Chinese Mustard Greens  - aka Gai Choy, Gai Choi (Brassica juncea)

Shur told me that there are over 50 varieties of Chinese mustard greens alone, with appearances and flavors that vary widely. The variety pictured below from the Minneapolis Lyndale market is called Bau Sin.

These greens reminded me of red komatsuna, a variety of Japanese mustard greens that I had received in one of my CSA boxes.  Japanese and Chinese mustard greens are similar.

Mustard greens are from the brassica family and are distantly related to cabbage, kale, broccoli and brussels sprouts.  Like the other greens I profiled on Monday, these greens are very nutritious, providing vitamins K, A, C, folic acid and antioxidants.

In general, mustard greens taste spicy and peppery, similar to arugula or broccoli rabe/rapini.  The baby mustard greens at the market right now are tender and mild. As the weather gets warmer and the plants grow bigger, the flavor gets sharper and more spicy.   When you cook mustard greens, they mellow a bit and taste somewhat like spinach.  
Mustard greens are best sauteed, boiled, steamed and used in stir frys or soups.  Some people like to pickle the more mature mustard plants.
To prepare these greens, you can either trim the roots or end off the greens and cook all of it – leaves plus stems, or you can cut the stems off and cook just the leaves.

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Chinese Flowering Cabbage – aka Choy Sum, Yu Choy, Chinese Spinach, Oilseed Rape (Brassica rapa)

This is an edible variety of the same plant from which canola oil and rapeseed oil are derived; it’s also from the brassica family.

The vendor said that typically this wouldn’t have quite so many flowers, but the hot weather that we’d experienced earlier in the week had caused the plant to bolt and send up flowers.  

This looked pretty similar to the greens I picked up once at a local Asian supermarket, which were labelled “yu choy”.

And, also, the hon tsai tai that I received in one of my Harmony Valley Farm CSA boxes.  

Typically, you cook and eat the entire plant, including leaves and stems.  Shur said that opinions differ about eating the flowers:  the Laos, Thai and Hmong prefer to eat the flowers, while Chinese and Vietnamese preparations often leave them out.  To prep the greens, just snap off the woody part at the base of the stalk (similar to asparagus), then you’re ready to cook.

When I made the choy sum, I did this and left the rest of the stalk whole.  In the end, these pieces were too big; next time, I’ll cut the stalks into pieces so they are easier to eat.

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Chinese white cabbage – aka Bok Choy, baby bok choy, white cabbage, pak choy, pak choi (Brassica rapa)

The variety pictured below is Shanghai baby bok choy, which I purchased at Minneapolis Farmers Market.
Baby bok choy may also look like this – a variety I’ve purchased in the past from the Loon Organics stand at Mill City Farmers Market. 
This is regular full-sized bok choy.

The flavor of bok choy is slightly bitter. This vegetable is a natural for stir fries, braises or soups, with its crunchy stalks and tender greens.   Baby bok choy is slightly sweeter and more tender than regular bok choy.

There are many ways you can stir fry bok choy but the recipe I keep going back to is one from Deborah Madison for tofu with bok choy.  It’s extremely simple and quick to make, perfect comfort food for a busy weeknight.

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Finally, still a mystery to me:

Are these Chinese mustard greens? Or napa cabbage?

I purchased both of these bunches at the Minneapolis market from separate stands on the same day.   The vendor who sold me the one on the left said it was Chinese mustard greens, and the vendor who sold me the one on the right said that it was Napa cabbage.

Are these the same category of vegetable?  I have no idea.  

Come to think of it, this looked similar to a green I received in a Harmony Valley Farm CSA box that was also identified as “napa cabbage”, though it looked to me more like romaine lettuce.   The giveaway that it is not romaine lettuce is the distinctive white rib running through each leaf’s center – this marks it as from the choy family of vegetables.

Still, this doesn’t look like the napa cabbage which I’ve been familiar with buying in the store. [Sigh.] I’m still learning.

Here’s a good photo illustration of other Asian greens that I came across recently; you may find it helpful too.

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Okay, the million dollar question – what to do with Asian greens?  The short answer is to stir fry them, braise them or add them to soups.  The good news is that many of these greens are interchangeable and simple preparations with garlic, soy sauce, ginger, oyster sauce, etc. seem to work well.

Here are some recipe ideas for Asian mustard greens, choy sum and bok choy, gleaned from the Internet and assembled into a master list from my previous IN SEASON posts about bok choy, red komatsuna and hon tsai tai.


Mustard greens with garlic, onions and sesame oil (Simply Recipes)
Sauteed komatsuna with basil (Chubby Bunny Recipes)
Tahini-soy sauce greens (Worden Farm)
Komatsuna greens in ginger almond miso sauce (Cupcake Punk)
Hon tsai tai with soy sauce and oyster sauce (Tucson CSA)
Asian greens with garlic sauce (A Mighty Appetite)
Soy glazed baby bok choy (A Veggie Venture)
Tofu with bok choy (Green Your Plate)
Sweet and spicy stir fry (A Good Appetite)
Simple almost spring vegetable stir fry (Beth Dooley for Star Tribune)
Spicy stir fry chicken and greens with peanuts (Harmony Valley Farm)
Skirt steak and bok choy stir fry (Martha Stewart)

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One last thing – I’m giving a Market Talk about greens at the Minneapolis Farmers Market tomorrow morning, Saturday June 18th, at 10:30 am.  I’ll be demonstrating some of the recipes mentioned during my posts this week.  If you’re at the market, please stop by and say hello!

Have you cooked with any of these types of Asian greens yourself?  What’s your favorite way to prepare them?

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2 thoughts on “IN SEASON: Asian Greens

  1. Oh, this is a nice guide Amy because like you I am often intimidated by the items I don't recognize in the farmer's market. I've found the kids of the venders can be helpful too. Thanks for including a link to my recipe.

  2. I used to work in the "juice bar" at Rainbow Foods back when I was in high school and one of my duties was to make a particular salad that included bok choy and napa cabbage. So I would plod out to the produce department and gather ingredients. Well, I learned early on that I wasn't the only one who didn't know the difference: just about every week the "bok choy" and "napa cabbage" were interchangeable in their labeled locations in the produce section. I never really knew which one was which but luckily this salad included them both!

    I'm in my second year with a HVF CSA and I agree — you really learn a lot by getting the unmarked bunches of greens each week. For dinner tonight I just had a mixed greens salad with pea vine — first time I've ever had those! They made the salad look super fancy (even though I was eating it out of a big tupperware bowl [fancy Friday night]), especially next to the flowers HVF includes in their salad mix!

    Thanks for the guide!

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