An Introduction to Chinese Greens – including a list of vegetables with photos and names to help with shopping in an Asian market, links to recipes using the veggies, and how to prep and store them.
When you walk into a wet market in Chinatown or an Asian grocery store, you’ll usually see arrays of fresh green vegetables piled up in the produce section. They look very different from the “regular produce” you see in Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. And the veggie vendors usually mark them with obscure names that are phonetically translated from their Chinese names. Or even worse, just in Chinese characters, or with no name tag at all.
I want to share this basic guide to Chinese greens with you today. So it helps you to navigate and purchase common Chinese leafy greens, learn the basic cooking techniques, and open more doors to creating nutritious meals that taste good.
Chinese greens (绿菜, lǜ cài) are fast-growing vegetables that comprise the plant’s fresh green leaves, tender stems, and/or the plant’s fruit or flower. They are widely used in Asian cuisine to bulk up stir-fries, soups, and other dishes. Chinese greens are valued for their high vitamin, fiber, and iron content.
Chinese cuisine uses an abundance of its own green vegetables to bring excellent nutrients, taste, and texture to a huge number of dishes. On a regular Chinese family dinner table, you can usually spot a few dishes using various green vegetables, along with a protein dish, a soup, and rice (sometimes noodles or dumplings).
There are more than 30 species of leafy green vegetables cultivated in China. In this list, I have also included some non-leafy greens that are commonly found in Chinese cuisine.
Naturally, different types of greens are grown depending on the climate and soil of the region. In the colder northern and north-eastern parts of China, there is less sunlight. Greens such as napa cabbage, spinach, celery, cilantro, bok choy, chives, and lettuce are widely grown there. These plants are important during the winter months as a source of vitamins and minerals. In the more temperate climes of the south, Malabar spinach, edible amaranth, and water spinach are pretty common.
An Introduction to Chinese Greens
There are so many different varieties of edible greens available, it would be impossible to list them all. But to break it down, these are the most common ones used in Chinese cuisine, with some example recipes.
You’ll notice that some of the veggies do not include a recipe yet. I’m still working on this list and will update the post with more information and recipes in the future. Do bookmark the page and come back to check out the updates!
Round leaf spinach (圆叶菠菜, yuán yè bō cài)
Reaching a length of about 20cm, its leaves are tender and sweet. Sometimes known as flat-leaf spinach, it’s a common leafy green in the West, too.
I find that the round leaf spinach in Chinese markets has a longer and thicker stem than the regular spinach I see in the US. I enjoy using it in braised dishes because it withstands the high heat better and doesn’t turn mushy too fast. The spinach batch in the regular market works just as well. But do note, the packaged baby spinach (usually used in salads) requires way less cooking time.
Recipes using round leaf spinach
Garlic Spinach in Chicken Broth – It’s very common to cook tender leafy greens in a concentrated broth (高汤), which can be made with chicken and/or pork bones and is boiled down to a rich reduction. Simply saute some aromatics (usually garlic or ginger) with oil, then saute the veggies and splash them with the rich broth, and you will have a plate of tender veggies that are very flavorful.
This cooking method is commonly used with pea shoots, baby cabbage, water spinach, and amaranth in China. I also enjoy using it to cook kale.
Chinese Spinach and Peanut Salad – Another way to enjoy spinach. The spinach is blanched and served with a savory sauce with nuts. It’s a cold appetizer that goes well with dim sum, congee, and noodles.
Cilantro (香菜, xiāngcài)
Also known as coriander or, confusingly, Chinese parsley, it has a soft texture and strong fragrance that some people are repelled by.
It’s also commonly used in cold dishes to add fragrance and cut the grease of meat. For example, Bang Bang Chicken, Fu Qi Fei Pian (Sichuan Sliced Beef in Chili Sauce, 夫妻肺片), and Chinese Pork Belly Bun (Rou Jia Mo, 肉夹馍).
Water spinach (空心菜, kōng xīn cài, Ong Choi)
Or ‘empty-hearted’ spinach because of its round, hollow stems. It has slender and pointed leaves. It is especially popular in Southern Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine, where it is known as ‘kang kung’ and “ong choi”. Once chopped and cooked, water spinach has a tender texture and very mild taste. Although you can simply stir fry water spinach with aromatics and a pinch of salt, it’s popular to cook it with a stronger sauce because the veggie picks up whatever flavor you add to it.
To learn more about how to prep and cook water spinach, check out Stir-Fried Water Spinach – Two Ways.
Malabar spinach (木耳菜, mù’ěr cài)
Meaty stems with coarser and shinier leaves than round leaf spinach, but with a similar taste. The whole plant can be boiled or fried.
Napa cabbage (大白菜, dà bái cài)
This is THE famous Chinese cabbage. I really think this is China’s favorite – hence the cute name ‘big white vegetable’. In northern China, it’s a staple in winter since it’s one of the few vegetables that grow in cold weather. In Beijing, you’ll see piles of them ready to be pickled in jars to keep as a source of nutrients in the winter, almost like sauerkraut.
I consider napa cabbage a great staple to have at home, because it lasts very long in the fridge if uncut and unwashed, from 2 to 3 weeks. It works perfectly in braised dishes, soups, and stews. The stem and leaves turn very tender and taste sweet once cooked. They also soak up sauce very well. Back in China, my mom usually uses some leftover stewed meat and sauce to braise napa cabbage and glass noodles. Oh my! It makes this veggie taste heavenly.
Recipes using napa cabbage
- Napa Cabbage Soup with Meatballs
- Mom’s Best Pork Dumplings with Cabbage
- Vegetarian Hot and Sour Soup
- Char Siu Pork Lo Mein
Baby napa cabbage (娃娃菜, wáwá cài)
Basically a mini version of the above! (Wáwá means child’s doll). Baby napa cabbage is so much smaller than the regular napa cabbage, usually 5 to 6 inches (15 cm) in length. The leaves are thinner and tenderer as a result. It looks quite like endive.
Although you can replace the regular napa cabbage with baby napa cabbage in most of the recipes, it is often cooked halved or quartered for a stunning appearance.
Baby bok choy (上海青, Shànghǎi qīng)
Baby bok choy, or Shanghai bok choy, is a very popular and widely available Asian green in the US. It has mild-tasting spoon-shaped leaves that are lighter green and stems that are jade-green. It is used in Chinese cuisine in many different ways. For example, making stir-fries to enjoy the vegetable by itself, topping them on noodle soup to make your bowl more colorful, or to add a touch of texture and nutrition to a protein dish.
Recipes using baby bok choy
- Baby bok choy with crispy tofu – It’s my mom’s recipe and my favorite way to enjoy baby bok choy. It tastes so good that I wouldn’t mind serving it as a main dish over steamed rice.
- Blanched baby bok choy with garlic sauce – Another one of my mom’s recipes that she cooks all the time. You can use the same method to cook other veggies such as Chinese broccoli and choy sum.
- Stir Fried Baby Bok Choy with Gluten Balls (油菜炒面筋)
- Vegetarian Chow Mein (素菜炒面)
Dwarf bok choy (奶油白菜, nǎi yóu bái cài)
If you’ve never seen a vegetable and thought “that’s adorable!”, you have clearly never seen dwarf bok choy. Its frilly little leaves are the cutest thing. It’s picked at two inches tall and can be used the same as traditional bok choy, in salads and stir-fries.
Chinese broccoli (芥兰, jiè làn, Gai Lan)
Chinese broccoli is commonly transliterated from the Cantonese as gai lan. Unlike how we picture broccoli, it is a leaf vegetable with big, thick, flat leaves, fat stems and sometimes very small flower heads. It is one of the most popular and widely used leafy vegetables in Chinese cuisine. At most Cantonese dim sum restaurants, you will see gai lan on the menu, usually cooked with a very simple sauce or stir-fried with aromatics.
Recipes using Chinese broccoli
Choy Sum (菜心, 油菜心, cài xīn)
A bit like Chinese broccoli but sweeter, choy sum (Chinese cabbage) has a similar crisp stem texture to bok choy and requires very minimal cooking time. You can enjoy it with some aromatics and a drizzle of soy sauce (see this easy recipe).
Little bok choy (小白菜, xiǎo bái cài)
Little bok choy, unlike its sister big napa cabbage, is a popular Chinese green that is less known outside of Asia. It looks a bit like Chinese broccoli (gai lan) and choy sum, but has a straight stalk, flat leaves, and sometimes tiny flower buds. The stalk is crisper, more like the texture of bok choy, and slender. It has a mild grassy flavor. Due to its high water content, little bok choy will lose a lot of liquid during cooking and turn to a tender texture with just a hint of crispiness once cooked.
Check out my mom’s little bok choy recipe to learn how to prepare and cook with little bok choy.
Pea Shoots (豆苗, dòu miáo)
A very popular and delicious green that is usually served in Sichuan cuisine. Unlike the well-known rich spicy Sichuan dishes, the pea shoots are cooked with aromatics and a splash of Shaoxing wine. Once cooked, the pea shoots are very tender and they absorb flavor well.
My mom always reminds me to try to find pea shoots with bigger, fatter stems, because the younger, smaller pea shoots have a tougher texture. Check out this Stir-Fried Pea Shoots with Garlic to make restaurant-style pea shoots.
Chinese celery (芹菜, qín cài)
Its stems are curved into round, hollow stalks that are thinner than Western celery stems. Also, unlike Western celery, the Chinese variety is not so bitter and the leaves are sometimes eaten as well. For winning authenticity, use your Chinese celery in a classic Ground Beef Stir Fry.
Celtuce (莴笋, wō sǔn)
A cross between the names celery and lettuce, in reality, this is nothing like either. It is sold as a bamboo-sized, thick stem. It is peeled, sliced, and often used in stir-fries and braised dishes. The green flesh inside is crunchy, sweet, and mild with a slight nuttiness. It compatible with virtually any flavor but often enjoyed with very light and simple seasonings and with eggs.
Luffa/loofah (丝瓜, sī guā)
Yes, this plant is the origin of the scrubbing sponge. As a food, it’s popular in China and all over Asia. It looks kind of like a slender zucchini, or ‘thread gourd’ as the Chinese name suggests. It softens and when cooked, with a silky and velvety texture similar to eggplant.
Bitter Melon (苦瓜, kǔ guā)
Despite the fact it has a name that doesn’t sound super appetizing, it’s a very popular vegetable in Chinese cuisine. Not only is it quite tasty if you prepare it right. Bitter melon can also help control your blood sugar levels, boost immunity, give you beautiful skin, fight cancer, lower cholesterol, aid in digestion, and much more.
Bitter melon is a bit like if a cucumber and cantaloupe eloped. If it’s harvested before it ripens, then it’s not as bitter. It has uneven skin, spongy seeds, and tender meat. It’s often seeded, sliced, quickly blanched to eliminate the bitterness, and cooked with a strong sauce.
One of my favorites is bitter melon cooked in fermented black bean sauce. Another popular way to enjoy bitter melon is to cook it with beef in a garlic sauce.
Chinese Long Beans (豇豆, jiāng dòu)
Chinese long beans are also called yardlong beans. They are basically like string beans that are really really long, like the length of your arm. Compared to regular string beans, they have a slightly denser and chewier texture. The edible pod is usually fairly thick and the inner beans are tiny. They’re chopped short in cooking, to make it easier to pick them up with chopsticks or spoons.
Recipes using long beans
In the past, I often used regular green beans to replace long beans, because they are hard to find sometimes. You can easily replace the green beans with long beans by chopping them to the size used in the recipes below.
- Green Beans with Spicy Peanut Sauce
- Stir Fried Green Beans with Ground Pork (豆角炒肉末)
- Sichuan Dry Fried Green Beans (干煸四季豆)
Chinese Chive (韭菜, jiǔ cài)
Chinese chives resemble regular chives in shape and color, but with much larger, longer, and meatier leaves. Unlike chives which are usually used as a garnish to finish up a dish, Chinese chives are commonly used as the main ingredient in stir-fried dishes or add to dumpling filling. These delicate emerald straws have a pungent garlicky taste, which gives a kick to whatever dishes they’re used in. It pairs surprisingly well with egg-based dishes. The egg and Chinese chive combo is also a popular dumpling filling, featured in Beijing’s typical street snacks.
Chinese Yellow Chive (韭黄, jiǔ huáng)
Chinese yellow chives are chives that have been grown in an isolated dark room without exposure to sunlight. Due to the lack of photosynthesis during growth, the chives end up with yellow color and a more delicate texture. Their taste is similar to Chinese chives, only milder. It’s quite common to use Chinese yellow chives to make classic chive and egg stir fry, to create a better mouthfeel.
Garlic Sprouts (蒜苗, suàn miáo)
Garlic sprouts are also called 蒜苔 (suan tai) or 青葱 (qing cong). You know when you leave a garlic bulb and it starts growing a green shoot? These are similar in appearance to garlic chives, but slightly thicker, sturdier, and lighter green in color.
They make a more substantial ingredient (such as in the famous Garlic Sprouts with Shredded Pork) rather than being used as a condiment.
Shepherd’s purse (荠菜, jì cài)
I don’t know what shepherds keep their cash in, but I’m not sure it looks this much like a common garden weed! Shepherd’s purse is pretty rare in the US, but if you can find some frozen, wrap the leaves into some steamed pork dumplings or wontons for a truly unique, aromatic taste.
Chinese mustard greens (芥菜, jiè cài)
This strong-flavored variety of greens is naturally acerbic so it’s best not eat them raw on their own. They are usually pickled in plenty of salt and used as a table condiment rather than as a main ingredient, topping blander dishes like congee. Mustard greens are believed to have impressive medicinal properties; you be the judge after trying this Suan Cai Yu (Sichuan Fish with Pickled Mustard Greens).
Amaranth/Red Spinach/Yin Choy (苋菜, xiàn cài)
You may know it best as amaranth, but this leafy veg adds a beautiful splash of reddish purple to any dish. The leaves soften and tone down in flavor when cooked, acquiring a rich, smooth and earthy texture
Watercress (西洋菜, xī yáng cài)
We are pretty familiar with watercress in the West, but have you ever tried it in Chinese cuisine? With its penny-shaped leaves, its delicate texture and flavor when cooked perfectly complement mild salads and medicinal soups, like this Detox Herbal Veggie Broth.
Edible Chrysanthemum (茼蒿, tóng hāo)
Known as Tong Ho in Cantonese, there are two types of this chrysanthemum. One has larger, rounded leaves while the other has more slender serrated ones, and both have aromatic flavors. Both can be used in stir fries, hotpots or cold side dishes. Try using it in place of spinach in this classic Peanut Salad.
Sweet Potato/Yam leaves (地瓜苗, dì guā miáo)
I love that the Chinese word for sweet potato is ‘earth gourd’. And yes, you can eat its leaves! To be honest, it’s not that common for Chinese people to regularly consume these heart-shaped greens, but they are prized for their abundant vitamin content. Just make sure you don’t confuse them with ordinary potato leaves! How about trying them in place of kale in this Shrimp Soup with Tofu?
Greens have been used in cooked and cold dishes for thousands of years in China, being historically more readily available in rural areas than animal products. Alongside rice or noodles, they usually form the base component to most dishes and stir-fries. Although nowadays they are often used to complement meat in restaurants in big cities. Due to concerns about chemicals and bacteria, Chinese greens will almost never be eaten raw, unlike in the US where we often use uncooked vegetables in cold salads.
In preparation, Chinese greens should be washed thoroughly first, have the tough parts removed, and cut. They should be cooked as fresh as possible to get the most benefit from the nutrients, which diminish the longer they are kept.
In China, greens are generally cooked at very high heat for the briefest possible time. The longer you cook these vegetables, the more vitamins and texture will be lost (unless it is in a soup, in which case they diffuse into the broth). Often aromatics and simple seasonings are used in order to maintain the vibrant colors and nutritional qualities.
As with most of the pantry ingredients on this blog, you can find many varieties of Chinese greens at your local Chinatown or Asian market. Although some will be rarer, or only sold frozen. These days, many mainstream supermarkets or open-air markets that import fresh foreign goods will stock a selection in the fresh produce section. Avoid buying any unfrozen packaged greens as they are less likely to be fresh and will be of much lower quality, reducing the deliciousness of your meals. An exception would be pickled or preserved greens, such as the mustard greens or pickled napa cabbage.
Like with most vegetables, Chinese greens have a very short shelf-life and should ideally be cooked within one to two days of purchase. If you cannot, store them in the fridge in a bag for 3 to 4 days for fragile leafy vegetables such as pea shoots and water spinach. For meatier vegetables such as Chinese broccoli and celtuce, they will keep as long as a week. Napa cabbage is the one with the longest shelf life, often staying good for 2 to 3 weeks unwashed and uncut. The leafy greens will begin to wilt if you don’t cook them soon. And it will require a longer time to prep if you need to sort through the leaves and get rid of the parts that have gone bad.
You should always consume the cooked leafy greens as soon as they’re cooked, for the best taste. Although you can store the cooked greens in an air-tight container for a day or two in the fridge. The veggies will lose their green color and turn dark or brownish when you store them. Meatier veggies can be stored longer in the fridge, but I recommend you consume them as soon as possible. The veggies will lose more nutrients when you store them longer.
You should always avoid freezing green vegetables, whether raw or cooked. Due to the high water content, the veggies will release liquid in the freezer and cause freezer burn.
Can’t find what you’re looking for?
I’m still working on the list at the moment and will update it with more recipes. If you need a recipe using a specific vegetable, leave a comment below to let me know. I’ll try my best to develop the recipe for you.