The Skinny on... Asian Vegetables

Asian roots, greens, beans and corn offer a new world of delicious, healthy choices.
Bok ChoyThe Skinny On

Baby Corn
Baby corn
It’s truly corn taken off the stalk when tiny and tender. Once husked, baby corn can be eaten raw or cooked. Although baby corn is usually sold in cans, fresh varieties now show up in many large supermarkets. Look for it in the refrigerator section with the egg-roll wrappers and tofu. (It’s usually already husked.) Always rinse and drain any canned varieties. Consider putting raw or canned baby corn on a vegetable dip tray with carrot and celery sticks. Slice baby corn lengthwise in salads or cole slaws. Or add lots of them as a veggie boost to almost any stir-fry.
Bamboo Shoots
Bamboo shoots
They are indeed the shoots of immature, edible bamboo stalks. Most of us know them only in cans, often sliced into rectangles or perhaps thin shreds. However, Asian markets will sell fresh bamboo shoots, already peeled. Look for them in buckets of water in the produce section — or sometimes at the fish counter near the crabs. Thinly slice or shred these. Use the shreds raw in salads. Add the slices to soups and stews. Or marinate those slices overnight in seasoned rice vinegar and serve them as a pickle condiment at your next barbecue.
Bitter Melon
Bitter melon
This vegetable looks like an elongated, pale, green, bumpy cucumber. Cut it lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and fibrous membranes, then cut the halves into thin slices, as you might a cucumber. (By the way, the skin is edible.) As the name implies, the vegetable is indeed bitter, almost astringent. Pair it with big-flavored, spicy stir-fries, as well as sweet-and-sour dishes. To control some of the bitterness while still keeping its delicate, chewy texture, blanch the slices in boiling water for one minute before adding them to a dish.
Bok Choy
Bok choy
There are as many kinds of bok choy as there are lettuces: large, baby, long, Shanghai and the list goes on. Most have a common look: a white-stemmed, leafy vegetable in a tight head with a dark-green fringe at the leaves’ ends. Bok choy must be cooked for the best flavor: steamed whole for a few minutes and served with oyster sauce, for example. You can also break the leaves apart, chop them at will, and use them in stir-fries. One warning: All varieties must be carefully washed to get rid of the sandy grit that collects in the leaves near the base.
Chinese Broccoli
Chinese broccoli
Sometimes called “Chinese kale,” it’s actually related to the broccoli we know, but it has thinner stems, dark, big leaves and a very mild flavor. It can also have flowers. Every single part is edible, from the stem to those flowers. Avoid any bunches where the larger leaves are starting to show brown spots or pronounced wilting. Try these big leaves steamed and then cooled in the fridge before being drizzled with syrupy balsamic. Or chop them up and use them in stir-fries, a more delicate taste than spinach.
Long Beans
Long beans
Although often more than a foot long, sometimes up to 3 feet long, these are actually the immature pods from a variety of bean plant. (If they grow to full size, the seeds inside get hard and inedible.) Long beans are often sold in bunches, sometimes tied together in knots. Use them just as you would green beans: chop them into bite-sized bits and steam, fry, or blanch them. Slice and add them to any soup or stew in place of green beans for a little more herbaceous flavor. Thinly sliced and quite sweet, they’re particularly good in stir-fries with ground pork and lots of chilies.
Lotus Root
Lotus root
The underwater root of the lotus plant is sort of like jicama but even crunchier. While mostly found in cans, fresh lotus roots are available in some larger supermarkets. It must be peeled — the inside is stark white with holes like Swiss cheese. Enjoy it raw or stir-fried, steamed, braised, and even candied. Slice it into thin rings for a quick snack, spread with peanut butter. Add the rings to chicken soup in the final few minutes. How gorgeous, those rings floating in each bowl.
Napa Cabbage
Napa cabbage
You may have been buying Napa cabbage for years and didn’t even know it was an Asian staple. The cylindrical heads, about the size of a football, with wide, white stalks and pale-green, crinkly leaves, should be tight and compact. Don’t worry about any black spots on the leaves (simply a reaction to climate change). Napa cabbage is edible raw or cooked. Try it shredded in slaws for a more delicate taste. Did you know it’s the traditional cabbage in lo mein and egg-roll fillings? Chop it like lettuce and dress it with your favorite salad dressing. Or slice it into thin strips and stir these into soups or stews for the final minute or so, just until they wilt.
Pea Shoots
Pea shoots
These are the tendrils and leaves of young pea plants. Look for very thin stems; remove any that are woody or coarse. Any blossoms are also edible. Pea shoots can be eaten raw, tossed in a salad with a squeeze of lemon juice. Or try them quickly wilted in a skillet, almost like spinach but very fresh, with the sweet, springlike taste of peas in every bite.
Straw Mushrooms
Straw mushrooms
So named because they were once cultivated on the rice straw in the paddies, these have floppy flapper caps that pull down in a delicate fringe around the thin stems. Because of how they’re grown, straw mushrooms have a musty, earthy flavor. However, in a neighborhood supermarket — and even most Asian supermarkets — they’re available almost exclusively canned. The flavor is much compromised, not so musty, so they add a delicate, almost sweet taste to any stir-fry or braise. Substitute them for canned mushrooms in any recipe.
Water Chestnuts
Water chestnuts
This knobby corm grows in marshy areas. Most of what we can find in North America is canned, (whole or sliced) and still as crunchy as celery. However, Asian markets stock whole fresh water chestnuts in the refrigerator case (they’ll look like husked tulip bulbs) or peeled and floating in a bucket of water. They’re easier to store unpeeled — toss them right into the vegetable bin — but the brownish-black skin must be peeled before they can be used. Once peeled, the white, crunchy, juicy, barely sweet vegetable can be sliced or shredded into a salad for a little texture or added to less assertive, more fragrant stir-fries, particularly ones with chicken.
Water Spinach
Water spinach
This may be the king of the Chinese leafy greens: sweet, not bitter, vibrant, a little earthy. Water spinach is an aquatic plant with a narrow, hollow stem and green leaves. It’s related to the morning glory. Look for whole, tender leaves on stems that are not split or dried out. Check the stems for dirt before using. Water spinach must be cooked: blanched quickly and then dressed; chopped and then stir-fried; or sliced and then added to soups as you would spinach or chard.
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