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.  

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.


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.

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.

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.


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)


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?

A tale of two greens

Two greens, similar stir fry preparations but quite different results…

During this week off from my CSA box, I test drove two of the recipes for hon tsai tai and pea vine, using ingredients sourced from Shuang Hur, an Asian supermarket in St. Paul.

Hon tsai tai / Yu choy (Choy sum)
I couldn’t find hon tsai tai at the store, so I bought yu choy, which is somewhat similar, I think???

We made the recipe for Asian Greens with Garlic Sauce, from the Mighty Appetite blog.
We cut off a lot of the stems, and blanched the greens prior to stir frying. The flavoring consisted of garlic, soy sauce, peanut oil and sesame oil.

It turned out yummy, and the recipe was a snap to make. In the comments section for the blog post, one WashPost reader suggested further time savings by blanching the greens in the microwave rather than having to wait for water to boil.

This recipe can be used for any Asian greens, bok choy, etc. I think it’s earned a place in our regular meal rotation.

Pea tips / Pea vine / Pea shoots

Then, we tried preparing the “pea tips” (aka pea vine or pea shoots), using the recipe, Stir-Fried Pea Shoots. Flavoring included sesame oil, ginger, garlic, sugar, soy sauce and oyster sauce.

Even though the cooked greens looked a little similar, the texture was very different.

I stir fried these greens, with no prior blanching step. The result?
Tough, tough stems, wiry tendrils and an unpleasant mouth feel.

Maybe these greens need to be blanched too, or at least more of the stems cut off. I had assumed since it was labeled “pea tips” that it would be tender at the top of the plant. It could be the stems were tougher because they were from mature plants, who knows.

I’ll have to compare them to the pea vine from Harmony Valley Farm to see if they were the same variety of plant. Maybe pea tips are the evil cousin of pea vine.

IN SEASON: Hon tsai tai

OK, onto another little known vegetable, hon tsai tai (pronounced HON-sie-tie). It has been described as a type of flowering bok choy and a mild Asian green from the mustard family.

There are numerous types of Asian greens; they are typically at their best in spring and fall.

Hon tsai tai is a specific variety of yu choy (aka choy sum) which has a deep purple stalk, dark green leaves and yellow flowers. The entire plant can be eaten – stems, leaves, and flowers. So, eat up!

Read the excellent article, Choy to the World from the Conscious Choice website to learn more about the choy family of vegetables, including bok choy (Chinese white cabbage), baby bok choy, mei qing choy (Shanghai bok choy), komatsuna, yu choy (choy sum), tatsoi, and mizuna.

It feels confusing, all of these dual names for vegetables.

HVF CSA newbies, you will be receiving many of these items in your future CSA boxes this season, so do yourself a favor and read up on these ahead of time so you can be armed and dangerous with choy-ous knowledge.

It’s difficult to find recipes specifically for hon tsai tai online, but I did find a couple:
Sauteed Hon Tsai Tai
Hon Tsai Tai with Soy Sauce and Oyster Sauce
Spicy Stir Fried Chicken and Greens with Peanuts
Chicken and Spring Green Stir Fry with Coconut-Peanut Sauce

Basically, you can substitute this vegetable in any bok choy recipe and you should be fine. Or, do a search for choy sum / yu choy recipes, as this seems to be a more commonly referenced ingredient.

For Asian greens in general, I think you can throw on some combination of: soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, fresh ginger, garlic, chiles, fish sauce, oyster sauce, etc. and it will likely taste good.

I bought some yu choy from Shuang Hur in St Paul to try it out myself this weekend; it was the closest I could find to hon tsai tai. It also has yellow flowers, but the stalks are green rather than purple.
This supermarket stocked bok choy, baby bok choy, yu choy, mei qing choy, gailand, gai choy, and Hmong gai choy. That is a whole lot of choy going on.

I’ve been meaning to try a Mighty Appetite recipe, Asian Greens with Garlic Sauce, ever since it was featured a couple of months ago. Now’s the chance, apparently, since I found out that yu choy is the same as choy sum. It looks super simple to make.

Let me know what you do with your hon tsai tai, okay? I will be waiting in breathless anticipation until it shows up in one of my future CSA boxes.

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