In season: know your Asian vegetables
One of the best things about living in a multicultural country like Australia is the influences that so many different cultures have had on our foodscape. When it comes to Asian cuisine, experiences on offer now expand far beyond the sweet and sour pork and greasy spring rolls at Chinese restaurants of yore. Now we’re spoiled for choice, from Thai street food and Sichuan hot pot to Korean barbecue and Japanese degustation. All of these culinary delights haven’t just introduced us to new ways of cooking and enjoying food, they’ve also brought Asian vegetables into the mainstream Aussie diet.
While once you could only find them at Asian grocery stores, Asian vegetables are now to be found at markets and grocers across Australia. But do you know your bok choy from your wombok? We take a look at some of the most popular Asian vegetables in Australia, including who grows them, where you can find them and how to use them in your cooking.
Also known as Chinese chard, Chinese white cabbage, mustard cabbage, buk choy, bok choi and pak choy, bok choy comes in even more varieties than it has names. For example, baby bok choy isn’t just immature bok choy; it’s a dwarf variety. Bok choy is almost like two vegetables in one. The thick, juicy stems add an interesting texture to a dish while the dark green leaves add a different consistency and flavour. Bok choy is most commonly steamed, stir-fried or added to soup. If you’re cooking with bok choy, always add the stems first, because they take longer to cook. Slicing the stems on the diagonal also helps to expose the inner surfaces. They can then soak up the sauces and flavours in your dish.
Also known as Chinese flowering cabbage, choy sum is one of the most commonly cultivated plants in Asia. While it’s part of the Chinese cabbage group, choy sum doesn’t form heads like regular cabbage. Instead, it forms long, leafy stalks. The mild flavour, crunchy stems and soft leaves of these Asian vegetables make them a good match for a variety of foods and flavours. To use them in cooking, just wash and roughly chop the whole bunch. You can then stir-fry them, steam them or add them to soups, stews or curries. For a simple yet tasty side dish, blanch choy sum and serve it with garlic or oyster sauce.
Also known as white radish, Japanese radish, Chinese radish and winter radish, this large, long radish has a mild flavour and crunchy texture. Daikon radish can come in an oblong, spherical or cylindrical shape. For something special, see if you can find a watermelon radish. This is a Chinese heirloom variety of daikon radish that has pale green skin and a pink interior. In cooking, daikon radish is versatile enough to be used raw in a salad, or roasted, steamed or stir-fried. You can also pickle it or use it as a garnish or in sushi.
Also known as Chinese broccoli, kailan and Chinese kale, gai lan is closely related to broccoli. But unlike broccoli, the whole plant is eaten – leaves, stems and flower bud. It tastes a little like broccoli, but the crunchy stems and thick leaves of gai lan provide this Asian veg with a flavour all its own. You can use the stems, leaves and buds in stir-fries, soups or casseroles. Or steam them and serve as a side dish, drizzled with oyster sauce. Thicker stems will take longer to cook, so cut them in half and add them before the leaves.
Also known as Shanghai bok choy and baby bok choy, pak choy is really a green-stemmed variety of bok choy. But it’s quite different in texture and flavour. The stems are flatter and less juicy than bok choy, but the leaves are more tender and the whole vegetable has a milder flavour. Pak choy is probably one of the best Asian vegetables to add to a stir-fry. To cook, just roughly chop the whole plant and then add it to the dish near the end of cooking. You can also add it to soups, curries or casseroles. For an easy but pleasing side dish, simply slice the plants in half and steam them. Smaller pak choy plants can be cooked whole. Then drizzle the cooked pak choy with a little soy sauce and sesame oil.
Also known as Chinese cabbage, celery cabbage, Napa cabbage, Tientsin cabbage and wong nga bok, wombok is one of the most popular vegetables in Asia. Like bok choy, this veg also has more varieties than it has names, with shapes ranging from compact round barrels to long, slim cylinders. Wombok has a milder, sweeter flavour than regular cabbage. While the leaves can be a tad peppery, the thick, white ribs are sweet and juicy. Inner leaves, which have been protected from the elements, are particularly tender and succulent.
When it comes to cooking, wombok can be used in countless ways. Its sweet flavour and crunchy texture make it perfect for a coleslaw. Or mix up your burgers and sandwiches and add wombok instead of lettuce. Shredded wombok is also a key ingredient in dumplings, and it’s the main player in the traditional Korean side dish, kimchi. You can also add wombok to soups, casseroles and stir-fries. It absorbs flavours well during cooking.
Better than kale?
Asian vegetables don’t just offer interesting tastes and textures. They’re also incredibly nutritious. Asian greens such as bok choy, choy sum and gai lan belong to the Brassica family. This means they’re related to Brussels sprouts and broccoli. Brassicas aren’t just rich in vitamins B, C and K; they contain compounds called indoles, which have been found to play a role in cancer prevention. They’re also a rich source of lutein and zeaxanthin, which are both needed for eye health. Add in magnesium for muscle function and potassium for a healthy heart, and you have some genuine superfoods on your hands.
Of course, other Asian vegetables are no shirkers in the health department. Daikon radish, for instance, contains the polyphenol antioxidants ferulic acid and quercetin. These have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Snow peas are rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, dietary fibre, magnesium and folic acid. Chinese long beans – also known as snake beans or yardlong beans – are high in fibre and folate.
Who grows Asian vegetables?
Asian vegetables are grown all across Australia, from Tasmania to the Northern Territory. The Pham family of Nexgen Produce came to Australia from Vietnam in the 1980s, and now grow Asian vegetables including okra and snake beans on their vegetable farm at Marrakai, east of Darwin. Craig and Anne Arnott of Arnotts Vegetable Farms, on Melbourne’s southeast fringes, produce a range of vegetables, including pak choy and bok choy. Also in Victoria, you’ll find a variety of Asian vegetables being grown by Butler Market Gardens in Heatherton and Gazzola Farms in Somerville.
Hydro Produce, which has a hydroponic farm in NSW and a farm in Queensland, produces a variety of Asian greens, from bok choy and baby bok choy to gai lan, choy sum and pak choy. Rita’s Farm in NSW grows a huge range of certified organic Asian vegetables, from bok choy and pak choy to mizuna (AKA Japanese mustard greens or spider mustard) and watercress. And down in Tasmania, Harvest Moon has gone from producing potatoes to growing a diverse range of veg, including Asian vegetables such as wombok and choy sum.
Asian greens are now in season. This means it’s the perfect time to start experimenting with them while they’re at their most abundant and nutritious. You can find Asian vegetables aplenty at greengrocers, Asian grocers and local farmers’ markets. They can also be found at Harris Farm Markets and some major supermarkets.