Chinese Greens 101: Three Basic Cooking Techniques for Chinese Greens

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Chinese and Western greens can both be cooked using similar methods.[Photographs: Shao Z.]

Growing up, not having a plate of Chinese greens on the table for dinner was like not having rice—it was simply unthinkable. Quick to cook, simple, and delicious, Chinese greens are a great way to add a vegetable dish to your meal. In this series, we've been talking about some of the most common types of Chinese greens, common cooking methods, and a few ways to bring some Western greens into the fold as well. Check out the entire series here!

If you're not familiar with the varieties of Chinese greens, a trip to the vegetable aisle at your local Asian supermarket can be a little daunting, if not disorienting. You'll most likely find rows upon rows of greens lined up right next to each other, often similar in shape and color. The unfamiliar and often similar-sounding names only add to the confusion. For full, green-by-green identification, check out The Serious Eats Field Guide to Asian Greens here.

Meanwhile, today we're going to talk about the three most common Chinese greens, and how to cook them. Most greens are perfect simply stir-fried with garlic. Some are even better with a drizzle of oyster sauce. Heartier greens do well stir-fried with fermented black beans, and tender, succulent greens are great served in broth instead.

The Three Most Popular Greens

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From left to right, Chinese broccoli, bok choy, and choy sum, with a bit of red choy sum up front.

Three of the most popular greens you'll find in Chinese restaurants and in Asian markets are Chinese broccoli, choy sum, and bok choy.

Gal Lan (Chinese Broccoli)

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Good broccoli on the left, bad broccoli on the right. Avoid bruised or yellowed leaves.

Also known as gai lan, Chinese broccoli is a dark green vegetable with thick stalks, large flat leaves and tiny flower buds. It's slightly bitter but not as bitter as broccoli rabe. It's usually stir-fried with garlic, or poached in water and served with oyster sauce on top.

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Clean, fresh stalk-ends are a sign of good broccoli

When selecting both Chinese broccoli and choy sum, look for bright green, bruise-free, crisp leaves with no yellow spots. The tiny flower buds should be tight and compact. Also check the ends of the stalks and make sure they are not dry or crusted.

Choy Sum

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Choy sum.

Similar in appearance to Chinese broccoli is choy sum (also known as yau choy). When translated literally, choy sum means "vegetable heart" and yau choy means "oil vegetable." Like Chinese broccoli, it has large flat leaves and tiny flower buds, but its stalks are slender. It has a milder flavor and goes well stir-fried with garlic. If you've had wonton noodle soup and there are two long green stems on top, it's probably choy sum.

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Chinese broccoli on the left vs. choy sum on the right.

As with Chinese broccoli, look for bright green, crisp leaves and thin, tender-crisp stalks.

Bok Choy

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Last but not least is bok choy. Sold in both its mature form or as baby bok choy, you'll usually find two varieties of this popular Chinese green. The white stem variety with dark green leaves is simply known as bok choy, while the pale green stem variety is known as Shanghai bok choy. Both varieties, in either mature or baby form, are best used in stir-fries, braises, and soups. When selecting bok choy, look for firm stems bunched together in tight heads, with crisp leaves and no black spots.

The Three Best Ways to Cook Chinese Greens

Three of my favorite ways to cook Chinese greens are stir-frying with garlic (or black beans), blanching and serving with a drizzle of oyster sauce, or serving in broth. Fast and simple, these three methods work just as well with non-Asian vegetables such as kale, Swiss chard, frisee, and iceberg lettuce.

Method 1: Stir-Frying

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The best greens for stir-frying: gai lan, choy sum, bok choy, yam leaves, napa cabbage, mustard greens, watercress, kale, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, frisée, turnip greens, swiss chard, broccoli rabe, regular broccoli.

My go-to method for cooking any greens, whether it's an Asian or non-Asian green, is always stir-frying. When stir-frying greens, think about the type of green you have. Does it need to be cut? Long vegetables like Swiss chard will need to be chopped up before cooking. Hearty leaves can be roughly torn or chopped, while tender stems—like those you'd find on gai lan or bok choy—should be sliced into smaller pieces.

If you have even thicker stems, you'll want to blanch them in salted boiling water for just a moment to tenderize them before they hit the wok.

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The flavor of garlic can change depending on how you chop it.

You can stir-fry your vegetables plain with just a bit of salt, but if you want to add aromatics, you'll have to choose whether you want them in larger chunks for milder flavor, or finely minced for stronger flavor that penetrates the dish. If you leave them large, add them to the wok before you add your greens so they have a chance to soften. If mincing, add them towards the end of cooking to keep the flavor stronger and prevent the smaller pieces from burning.

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Method 2: Blanching with Oyster Sauce

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The best greens for blanching: gai lan, choy sum, bok choy, mustard greens, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, broccoli rabe.

Since oyster sauce has a pretty bold flavor, this cooking preparation works best on heartier stem vegetables like bok choy and broccoli rabe, and crispy vegetables like iceberg and romaine lettuce. To poach greens, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the greens, and cook them, stirring occasionally with a metal spider, until they're cooked just past al dente.

The most important step come after cooking: draining. You need to drain your greens very well, as any excess water will dilute the flavor of the oyster sauce. Pressing them with a spoon or spatula in a fine mesh strainer works, as does a heavy duty salad spinner. If you don't have either, you can fish out the greens with a spider or pair of tongs, let them drip, then dry them thoroughly on a tray lined with paper towels or clean kitchen towels.

Once the oyster sauce is applied, I like to give them a bit of extra flavor with a sprinkle of fried garlic.

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Method 3: in Broth

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The best greens for serving in broth: choy sum, baby bok choy, red shen choy, yam leaves, snow pea shots, spinach, iceberg lettuce.

Although most greens are great stir-fried, I find tender leafy greens are best when they are served in broth. Broth is also a good showplace for slender stem greens like choy sum, flat stem greens like baby bok choy, and is especially good with snow pea shots and iceberg lettuce.

In most Chinese restaurants, greens will be cooked in "superior stock", made from chicken, pork bones, and smoked ham. You can check out our recipe for wonton soup for a good version of superior stock. It's a wonderful broth to have around for soups and greens. The only drawback? It takes a few hours to make. For everyday meals, chicken stock is a good stand-in.

To cook greens in broth, just bring your broth to a simmer (with or without aromatics like sliced garlic or ginger), season to taste with salt, and add your greens, cooking them just until tender.

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