Asian Greens Demystified

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BY AMY PENNINGTON
PHOTOS BY KELLY CLINE AND JILL LIGHTNER

 

greens_with_legend.jpgWe have the great fortune of mild weather here in the Pacific Northwest and while wearing a wool sweater in July is never fun, the gentle temperatures do help prolong a growing season that can last all year long. Our markets are often lush with greens from early spring to late fall and we benefit from a melting pot of cultures. Asian, Russian and Indian vendors descend on the farmers markets with exotic-looking vegetables under a bewildering array of names.

Asian greens, in particular, do very well in our climate as most are cool-season vegetables and can tolerate overwintering in much of Western Washington. While names and spelling can be confusing there are a few key features that distinguish one plant family from another. Here, we call out a few of our favorites available in spring and early fall. While the names may change, the plant family will not, so use these as a guide next time you’re shopping and find yourself in unfamiliar territory.

MIZUNA
We tend to think of mizuna as one particular plant, but the term refers to a larger family of many plants. Mizuna (as with many Asian greens) is related to a large group of Brassica, Brassica Rapa. Within the mizuna family, some leaves may be serrated while others are dark green and rounded. Leaf coloring varies, ranging from lime green through the spectrum to purple. The USDA lists at least sixteen common varieties of mizuna alone—Mibuna, Mispoona and Kyona—to highlight some of the more common names. For clarity’s sake, we refer to the delicate, yet pungent, salad green as mizuna, and the rest by another name, such as Chinese mustards.

What we consider common mizuna (Kyona mizuna) is easily identifiable by its sharp, serrated leaves. Cutting into this leaf, you can expect a strong waft of fresh cut grass. Its structure is quite delicate, but don’t let that fool you. This green packs an assaulting punch of pepper-y flavor. Choose small salad greens for eating raw or opt for larger, more mature leaves if you’re wanting to sauté.

Mizuna can be found in the markets from mid to late spring or again throughout fall. It is good to note that the older the plant, the spicier the leaves. Late spring mizuna will often take on a horseradish-like spiciness, where as a delicate baby mizuna leaf falls closer to the flavor of soft white pepper. Plan to adjust your recipes along with the season.

BOK CHOY
Bok choy also goes by the name pac choi or pak choy. To further confuse the name game, once the inner core of a bok choy flowers, it is referred to as choy sum.  Plants associated with bok choy have two disparate visual cues: either plush white stems with glossy green leaves or slightly rounded green stems with a flat leaf finish.

What we commonly refer to as bok choy is a plant with light green cupped stems. Bok choy is very mild in flavor and perfect for sautéing or steaming. It is almost celery-like in its lack of strong flavor, and can be added to numerous soups without overwhelming the bowl.

Tatsoi has a thicker leaf than that of traditional spinach and is far juicier; it also has a crisp, succulent white stem. These greens have a slightly bitter broccoli flavor that stands up to being sautéed and makes for a hearty side dish. As with many greens, the small baby leaves can be eaten raw in salads or folded into grain salads for some green texture.

CABBAGES
There are so many varieties to a simple cabbage plant, it would take a research paper to explain them and their distinct characteristics. In short, Asian cabbage has an elongated body structure and a thin, soft leaf unlike that of the tight, round-headed white cabbage that is typically available at the market and in groceries. Chinese cabbages do well in our climate and are available in both the spring and fall harvest seasons.

Napa cabbage (it originated centuries ago in China, not in Napa) is the most easily identifiable, and comes in large round heads with long white leaves tipped in lime green frills. Chinese cabbages go by nearly endless names (which at this point should be no surprise) and are differentiated only in length of leave or thickness of the head. Some are considered “barrel” lettuces, like the Napa, while other long lean heads of cabbage are known as michihli. Michihli cabbages are a warm-season crop and therefore not common around the Puget Sound growing areas, but are easily distinguished by their narrow slender leaf, often as long as fourteen inches. Both Napa and michihli cabbages are more neutrally flavored than traditional white cabbage, and are incredibly delicate and creamy. Added to soups, they become velvety and luscious.

In spring, you can find cabbages with arresting color, which develops as the plant matures throughout spring. We found ho miz, a cabbage with broad wide leaves and purple veins ending in dark green spikes, at the Columbia City Farmers Market. It can be used interchangeably with Napa cabbage in recipes, and makes a beautifully colored quick slaw when dressed simply with lime juice, sugar and cilantro.

CHINESE BROCCOLI
Broccoli is an extremely broad category of Asian greens that includes Chinese kale, hon tsai tai and kailaan. Chinese broccoli has a thick, firm stem, but one that is much thinner and richer green in color than common broccoli. While slight variances in plants offer subtle visual differences, all broccolis are similar in flavor and have a slight mustard-y bite with a pungent smell that can at times be off-putting.

Kailaan is a common Asian green in our local markets and often labeled gai lan. Eaten raw, gai lan can leave a lingering afterbite, so it is best when cooked in a steamer basket or simply sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Hon tsai tai, if you can find it, is a gorgeous broccoli plant featuring very thin branch-like stems that turn bronze when mature; it has small compact sprouts that are often sold just as it begins to show yellow flowers, when the plant is at its sweetest. The entire plant is edible, and flowers can also be used in a sauté—the best way to prepare this hardy green. For the record, some farmers simply call this plant Purple Flowering Kale.

There are many resources for picking up a literal bunch of kitchen inspiration and trying something unfamiliar. Angiolina Farm east of the mountains in Zillah grows specifically for Uwajimaya. Their favorite green? Hakkurei, a baby Japanese turnip whose leaves are just as tasty as the turnips themselves. Each Saturday, Mair Farm-Taki graces the University Farmers Market with glorious greens; his stall is a must for anyone interested in Asian vegetables and fruit. Let Us Farm sets up at the Columbia City Farmers Market and is a great resource for Asian greens—they’re happy to walk you through their various plants. Some advice for new shoppers? Go with your gut. If it looks like broccoli and smells like broccoli, it’s probably some kind of broccoli…even if the sign says it’s a mustard.

 

Amy Pennington can be found racing mother nature to sow another round of mizuna every fall. Read more about what she has cooking in the kitchen and growing in the gardens at www.gogogreengarden.com

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