As inflation swells, the supermarket might seem like a battleground for Australian shoppers. There are few horrors akin to the sight of a $12 price tag on iceberg lettuce.
But while the cost of common vegetables like broccoli and cucumber has surged, one humble family has remained reasonably affordable. Enter: the Asian green.
Hardy through both rain and cold, Asian greens are a broad church. But the “holy trinity”, according to Dan Hong – the acclaimed chef behind Sydney restaurants Mr. Wong and Lotus – including bok choy, gai lan (Chinese broccoli), and choy sum.
“They’re quite mild in flavour, so they’re very approachable,” he says. “They’re almost like a cross between spinach and broccoli.”
These vegetables have not been fully immune to inflation, but their prices have held steadier than their Western counterparts.
“The price of Asian veg has actually increased by about 30 to 40% in the last two years, [after] staying the same price for the last 20,” says produce expert and former Plate of Origin contesting Thanh Truong, who, along with his family, owns Australia’s largest distributor of Asian vegetables. “Yet Asian veg is [still] half the price of most of the vegetables that you see in the supermarket.”
A bunch of bok choy, gai lan, or choy sum retails for $2.50 at both Woolworths and Coles. If you can get to an Asian grocer, prices are cheaper still: around $1.80 to $2.20, says Truong.
There’s an additional benefit to procuring them from an Asian grocer. “They tend to sell them more quickly than say, your local Woolies,” Hong says, resulting in fresher produce. Like any leafy vegetable, you can check for freshness by color. The best Asian greens are, well, green, and their skin will feel thin and more tender compared to overly mature bunches.
Six ways with Asian greens
The hard and fast rule to cooking Asian greens is to cook them hard and fast.
“Most Asian greens have a higher water content, and they’re generally a lot less fibrous,” says Palisa Anderson, a vegetable farmer and restaurateur of Sydney’s popular Chat Thai chain. “They’re best suited for … high-heat cooking.
“The more you stretch it out, the darker they’ll get. They’ll oxidize, and they’ll go brown really fast.”
A wok is ideal for the job, but never fear if you’re working with more prosaic equipment. Truong advises using “a pan that has a very thick base, like a steel pan” to recreate some degree of a wok’s intense heat and to stir-fry in batches.
Putting too many vegetables in at once, he says, will “basically stew your vegetables instead of cooking them really fast. And the whole point of cooking them very fast – only in one to two minutes – is you get the crispy skin, but you cook it the whole way through.”
Flavor-wise, Hong recommends pairing the stir-fry with an Asian condiment: “Always add something like oyster sauce or soy sauce,” he says. “And always stir fry with some aromatics in the oil before you add the actual greens – for example, garlic, ginger, and chilli.”
For a weather-appropriate application, try using Asian greens in soups. Truong recommends adding a variety called gai choy – or Chinese mustard greens – at the end of an existing broth recipe, like a bone broth or chicken broth, to impart a unique, leafy flavor to the dish.
“A lot of veg, when you add it into soup, it has too much of a green effect … When you boil broccoli [for instance], you’re left with the broccoli water. You might not taste it, but you can smell it … and it’s kind of off-putting,” Truong says. “But a mustard green actually adds … a very mild sweetness.”
Wombok is another favorite amongst Asian greens, perhaps most familiar in its fermented form as kimchi. Like any pickling process, it takes time to achieve the desired result, so it might be an activity that best suits the committed.
The Guardian has a five-day recipe for kimchi with wombok and daikon, though it can also be made with just about any leafy vegetable – including vegetable scraps.
Hong agrees. “I’ve played around with pickling bok choy,” he says, “and I’ve made kimchi out of bok choy and choy sum. It works out really nicely.”
Jenny Lam’s recipe for Vietnamese preserved mustard greens – or dua cai – take three to five days to ferment. From there, you can use them as is or turn them into pickles, which requires only 10 minutes of additional active prep.
Those who are even more patient could try salting and drying their Asian greens – like this recipe, where the preservation process takes place over several weeks. Then, says Hong, you can “add it to soups, and it adds this … concentrated flavor that a lot of people use for vegan broths” as a substitute for the intensity of meat.
“Every culture has a cabbage and pork situation,” says Anderson. The most familiar might be Polish gołąbki, but Asian greens can also also be used in a similar way.
“It’s not simple,” she warns. “But if you want to be creative, you can stuff [the leaves] and roll them.” Most commonly used is wombok: this recipe sees wombok leaves stuffed with a mix of pork and shiitake mushrooms then steamed, while another fills them with fish.
In place of other vegetables
In a pinch, it’s definitely worth trying Asian greens in Western recipes – something Hong has been doing “since forever”.
“A typical Italian dish would be orrechiette with broccoli, right?” he says. “You could definitely sub the broccoli with Chinese broccoli.
“Any green that you would generally … cook with butter and garlic, like spinach, you can use any Chinese green [in its place].”
For inspiration, try this gai lan pasta adapted from a dish served at David Chang’s restaurant Majordomo, or this choy sum and pesto fettuccine.
As an experiment
Outside of these common Asian greens, there are a plethora of vegetables which might be less familiar to the average shopper, though they can still be prepared similarly. One of Truong’s favorites is water spinach, which can be stir-fried with “vegetable oil, some garlic, salt, sugar, and fish sauce,” he says, “and it’ll be beautiful.”
Another left-of-field variety is chrysanthemum leaf, which “is almost like eating a … wild bush,” says Truong. “Think of rocket in terms of its shape, but it’s a bit larger, longer, sometimes it’s a little bit stringy. All in all, its flavor is very unique.” Herbaceous and citrusy, it’s best enjoyed in hot pot.
Above all, Truong has one piece of advice for trying new vegetables to get their texture and flavor just right: “Eat it so much at a restaurant that you love it before you cook it.”
“Because cooking it is much harder … but they just do it so well at a restaurant.”