Getting to Know: Asian Vegetables
Asian vegetables used to be relegated to ethnic markets—if you could find them at all. Now many sit alongside the carrots and tomatoes at ordinary supermarkets. Here’s how to store, cook, and enjoy some of our favorites.
We prize shiitakes for their earthy-sweet flavor and pleasantly chewy texture. Like many other types of mushrooms, they act like a sponge, soaking up the flavor of sauces and dressings. That’s why we particularly like them in stir-fries and salads, although you can also use them in place of white mushrooms in many recipes. However you cook with them, remove the woody stems first (unless they are very fresh and tender).
Dai means “big” in Japanese, and this bulbous Japanese radish lives up to its name: It can grow to be well over a foot long. (A common insult in Japan is to compare a woman’s stocky legs to daikon.) Daikon tastes more sweet than spicy, with a “peppery finish” and a texture like that of water chestnuts. You may know daikon as the small, white (raw, grated) pile on your sushi plate. You can also stir-fry or pickle it.
Lotus root is not a root at all. Rather, it’s the underwater stem (or rhizome) of the lotus plant. It looks like a fat, cream-colored sausage until you cut into it—surprise! The pretty pattern of circles makes each slice look like a snowflake. Our tasters noted the root’s “slippery but crisp” texture and its “subtle mushroom” flavor. Lotus root should be peeled before stir-frying, boiling, braising, steaming, or deep-frying.
Fresh bamboo shoots taste a little like crunchy asparagus. To prepare them, peel off the outer leaves and parboil the shoots for 20 minutes in an uncovered pan so compounds that cause bitterness in the shoots can dissipate. Then slice the shoots and add them to soups and dumplings. Avoid canned bamboo shoots, which have little flavor—and what flavor there is tinny.
Like traditional broccoli, Chinese broccoli (sold as
gai lan in Asian markets) is a member of the mustard family. It resembles broccoli rabe. We boil or steam it—in order to cook the thick stems—before sautéing it with seasonings (commonly garlic, ginger, and chiles). Our tasters found it “somehow both sweeter and more bitter” than ordinary broccoli.
Chinese eggplants are sweeter than the more familiar globe eggplants, and their skin is thinner. Despite these differences, you can usually use them interchangeably, although Chinese eggplant’s slender shape makes it a poor candidate for stuffing or use in eggplant Parmesan. Salting and draining is unnecessary with Chinese eggplants, which are mild. Slice them lengthwise and grill or quickly braise; slice them crosswise and sauté.
Bok choy has crisp, juicy stalks and leafy greens. When cooked (bok choy is usually stir-fried or quickly braised), the stalks become creamy, with an underlying sweetness, while the leaves soften; what our tasters call its “earthy, robust” flavor brings to mind chard. To evenly cook bok choy, separate the stalks and greens and give the former a head start. With baby bok choy, you can cook both at once.
Napa cabbage is milder and slightly sweeter than ordinary green cabbage. It’s delicious raw or cooked; you can use it in place of regular cabbage in most recipes. Koreans use it for kimchi, a fiery fermented condiment; other Asian nations also pickle it. We like napa cabbage in soups, dumplings, stir-fries, braises, or Asian-flavored slaws.
Both the pea and the pod are edible—hence the French name
mange-tout (“Eat it all”). Snow peas are crunchy, slightly sweet, and delicious. When shopping, pick up a pea and try to bend it until it breaks: Fresh peas will snap cleanly. Snap off the stem end and remove the string before eating snow peas raw, or stir-fry them quickly. If you overcook them, their nice crunch will disappear.
Beer-drinking Japanese snack on boiled, heavily salted edamame in much the way we eat peanuts. And like peanuts, edamame, which are fresh soybeans, taste “nutty.” Our tasters also noted their “firm, dense texture.” Sold fresh or frozen, edamame should be boiled in their pods, then salted and eaten out of hand, in salads, or mixed into stir-fries or rice dishes. (But don’t eat the fibrous, fuzzy pod.)
Mung Bean Sprouts
Although the Chinese have cultivated them for thousands of years, in this country, mung bean sprouts gained popularity during the health food craze of the 1970s, finding their way into sandwiches and many a stir-fry. Asians use them in egg rolls, in soups, or to top such dishes as pad thai. Cook sprouts quickly to maintain their snappy crunch and use them quickly. They don’t store well.
These skinny, dense beans can grow to nearly three feet in length and are often sold in coiled, knotted ropes. Our tasters reported that they are more pliable than string beans, with a “mellow earthiness” and a “meaty, slightly chewy” texture. Cut into lengths, they are a traditional choice in Asian stir-fries and braises, but they can also be blanched or steamed like “regular” green beans.