This page is a bit of a catch-all for miscellaneous Asian vegetables–the oddballs of the produce section, if you will. As our recipe list expands, we can break these ingredients up into more specific categories, but, for now, this should be quite useful for y’all!
If you’re looking for more information on other Chinese ingredients, go to our main Chinese Ingredients Glossary page to review the different categories and easily find what you’re looking for.
Bamboo Shoots (竹笋)
These are the tender shoots of the bamboo plant, before they turn into huge green stalks on which kung fu masters battle it out. We’re thinking of the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that was filmed in On Location in Hongcun. Edible bamboo shoots, zhú sǔn (竹笋) or simply sǔn (笋), fall into two broad categories: winter and spring shoots. Spring shoots are larger and a bit tougher than winter shoots. Obviously, it’s a very seasonal vegetable, so it is often difficult to find high quality bamboo shoots for the majority of the year.
Winter bamboo shoots or “dong shun” (冬笋) are usually in season during the late winter months when you can usually find them in Asian grocery stores. They can be expensive ranging between $3 – $6 per pound since they are mostly imported from China. However, they are tender, sweet tasting and are perfect for any dishes that call for bamboo shoots like Chicken with Garlic Sauce.
Spring bamboo shoots (春笋) are seasonal and are commonly found in China but you can sometimes find them in the US. This picture below of spring bamboo shoots was taken recently from a market in Shanghai during the month of March and they are available into the late spring months. A favorite soup that all Shanghai people know of and love is Yan Du Xian (Shanghainese Salted Pork Soup with Bamboo Shoots and Tofu) where either winter or spring bamboo shoots are one of the featured ingredients of the dish.
For those of you who can;t find fresh spring bamboo shoots, we found these frozen packages at our local Asian grocery store. One of our most favorite dishes are Braised Spring Bamboo Shoots (油焖笋) that Judy makes that are simply fantastic! Vegetarians and vegans and even meat lovers will love and seek out this dish once they have had it once!
In general, canned bamboo shoots are easier to obtain than fresh ones, and are available whole, shredded, or sliced. After opening the can, be sure to drain and rinse them. Unused bamboo shoots should be stored in the refrigerator in a jar of water for up to three weeks; just remember to change the water daily. You can also find frozen bamboo shoots, which are very good, or dried ones, which need to be soaked for a few hours before using. Each has a slightly different flavor and texture. We generally prefer fresh or frozen but canned bamboo shoots are usually available at Asian markets and some supermarkets Asian food aisles. Below is an amazon link to see the different brands available but the best bet is to buy them locally.
Bean Sprouts (豆芽)
There are two types of Chinese bean sprouts, dòu yá (豆芽) that you will see at your local market: mung bean sprouts and soybean sprouts. For either kind, avoid long, stringy, brown, or limp sprouts, as these are sure signs that the sprouts have been out on the supermarket floor for too long.
Mung bean sprouts or lǜ dòu yá (绿豆芽) are more common, and have a small “head” the size of a grain of barley, while soybean sprouts have a yellow head the size of a small bean.
You can purchase your own mung beans and make your sprouts on your own fresh! We found this link on Amazon where you can buy your own mung NON-GMO mung bean and germinate your own fresh sprouts at home!
Soy Bean Sprouts or huáng dòu yá (黄豆芽) have a larger bean while the mung bean sprouts pictured above have a much smaller bean. Most of our posted recipes use the more common mung bean sprouts. Because they sprout from a smaller bean, they are more tender.
Snow Peas (荷兰豆)
Everyone knows what snow peas are, but did you know they were called hé lán dòu (荷兰豆) in Chinese? We use snow peas so often in our stir fries that we had to include it here. We like these better than snap peas, for example, because the smaller size of the peas means that you can eat the whole pod and peas inside without any errant peas making a run for it; also, they’re more tender. In the summer when they are in season, or if you grow them in your garden, you have to try them using our Chicken with Snow Peas stir fry recipe–one of our favorite healthy go-to recipes.
Green Beans aka Edamame aka Soy Beans (毛豆)
Most people know about edamame beans because they probably have had them as an appetizer at a Japanese restaurant. What many people don’t know about edamame is that it’s technically a type of soy bean or máo dòu (毛豆) in Chinese. Commonly found in the frozen section of Asian stores and even supermarkets, the most common way to prepare edamame is to boil them in salted water until tender, pass them through cool water, drain them and put them right in front of your guests. Only the bean is eaten and the inedible pod is discarded. We have a recipe for Edamame bean appetizer recipe the way we like to prepare it.
You can buy these frozen in Asian grocery stores and we have even seen them in local supermarkets as well!
Fava Beans (蚕豆)
Fava beans, also known as broad beans or cán dòu (蚕豆), are not very common nor popular in both western and Asian cooking. However, they have their own unique flavor and texture and, when prepared properly, they are very tasty. Fava Beans with Szechuan Peppercorns is one of our early recipes that we still make quite often; it’s also one of our favorite recipes for this underrated legume. In Chinese cooking, fava beans are used for spicy douban sauce and also used to make noodles. Check out our Vegetable Noodles With Shrimp, where we use broad bean noodles.
The photo below is from a wet market in Shanghai. Broad beans are sold in the pods and you can peel them at home or they are also sold in baskets as beans with the pods removed. The price for the beans only are about 4 to 5 times the cost of the whole pods because you don’t have to pay for the weight of the pods that are discarded and of course, the labor required. If you have time, removing the beans from the pods are pretty easy to do and worth the price difference!
Chinese Long Beans (豇豆)
Chinese Long beans, sometimes called snake beans are also called “yardlong beans” because they can grow up to three feet long. These beans are immature cow pea pods (related to the black-eyed pea). Chinese long beans or jiāng dòu (豇豆) in Chinese, are denser and crunchier than green beans and can be found in different colors, from light and dark green to purple. We cut them into 3″-long segments and stir-fry them like we would any other green vegetable.
Bitter Melon (balsam pear) – (苦瓜)
Bitter melon is a curious summer gourd with light green, thick ridged, bumpy skin, this melon has a strong bitter flavor that some–well many–don’t enjoy too much. Bitter melon goes by a couple of Chinese names including kǔ guā (苦瓜), a literal translation of “bitter melon” but it also goes by the name of liáng guā (凉瓜) or “cool melon”. Chinese call it “cool melon” not because it’s hip but rather it is a cooling food. Those folks familiar with TCM or traditional Chinese Medicine will know what I am talking about. For those who don’t, your can check out the yin and yang discussion out on the Wikipedia for Traditional Chinese Medicine. You may think twice about making bitter melon for your kids or you’ll be met with equally bitter stares! It’s certainly an acquired taste (like strong broccoli rabe), often paired with other intensely flavored ingredients, like black bean sauce and beef, pork, or chicken. It’s a classic among bitter melon lovers and probably the most famous way to preserve this much-maligned melon: Beef with Bitter Melon.
You can store it in your vegetable crisper for 4-6 days. To prepare it, halve the melon, remove seeds, and slice the halves into small half-inch strips across. Cut it on a diagonal to get a professional, chef-y look. To remove some of the bitterness, blanch the slices for 2-3 minutes in salt water before stir-frying. We follow these steps for any kind of bitter melon recipe we make.
Chinese Eggplant (茄子)
These Chinese Eggplant or qié zi (茄子) longer, thinner versions of their rotund cousins are best bought unbruised, heavy, and firm, with a lavender to deep purple color. We don’t know the technical terms for the types, but there are many varieties of the Asian eggplants, which range in color from dark purple to light purple. They are all quite similar in texture and flavor–definitely softer and easier to cook than the eggplant that usually shows up in a delicious plate pf eggplant parmesan. These thinner, longer eggplants also have a more tender skin than their more rotund counterparts.
Some of favorite eggplant dishes include Chinese Eggplant with Garlic Sauce, Chinese Stuffed Eggplant, the same dish you see at the dim sum restaurants, and Cantonese Eggplant Casserole. The varieties in China seem to be a bit thinner and longer than the ones we find in the US and see, c;oser to the Japanese eggplant variety that have thinner skins and a more vibrant purple color.
Chinese Turnip or Radish (萝卜)
These Chinese turnips/radishes (also known as the Japanese daikon radish) or luó bo (萝卜)are found in various sizes, but the optimal size is usually eight to twelve inches long, white, cylindrical, and three to four inches wide. Eaten raw, it has a slightly spicy flavor, but becomes quite mild when cooked. Fair warning, though: they do have a strong aroma and flavor that will fill your kitchen when cooked. Not only does this wonderful root vegetable taste great, but this turnip is also very low in calories, aids digestion, and is a good source of vitamin C, phosphorus and potassium. Look for a heavy, firm turnip with fresh green stems (this means high water content). The skin of a fresh turnip should be shiny, not dull, and smooth, free of black spots which indicate that they are not fresh. One of our favorite recipes is Chinese Turnip cake (Lo Bok Gao) and one of the most overlooked recipes in our collection is Chinese Braised beef and turnips. Try them both!
Lotus Root (莲藕)
This long white, yellowish lotus root or lián’ǒu (莲藕) has a wheel of holes running through the middle is one of the most loved root vegetables in Chinese cooking. Harvesting these long unwieldy roots is an extremely labor intensive process that must be done by hand; it involves carefully digging them out of wet, clay mud. They’re quite long when harvested, and if it breaks, it’s no good. So don’t waste any of this delicious root!
When selecting these, make sure they are heavy, firm, and have a fresh, clean smell. Each piece must be washed thoroughly, as they have a natural sap that can come off as slimy if prepared improperly (similar to okra, though not as intense). Cut off any dark spots. After it’s peeled, it’s usually sliced into thin rounds.
Good quality fresh lotus roots are very difficult to find in the US. You can see from the picture below that the lotus roots in China are fresher (they do spoil rather quickly) and come in multiple segments still attached!
Taro root or yù tou (芋头) has a consistency and flavor similar to a baking potato. Most people know and love this root due to the popularity of taro smoothie bubble tea–hate to break it to you, but those are often prepared with purple powder, so don’t be surprised that this taro doesn’t have quite the same flavor.
When picking these, they should be firm and heavy. Apparently, handling them may cause some skin irritation, so some people choose to wear gloves, but this has never been a problem f0r us. One of our favorite recipes is Taro Cake (Wu Tao Gou), but you can also throw these into stews; like potatoes, they’re natural thickeners and will feed your inner carb monster.
Also remember that there are two distinct types of taro that come are large size (like a large eggplant) that are pictured above and the smaller ones that are more like the size of a small potato. They not only differ in size but also in taste and texture. The small variety pictured below are more tender and have a wet slippery texture while the large ones have a texture of a baking potato except they are much firmer. Chinese like to eat the small taro steamed and dipped in soy sauce as they are more tender while the large ones are used for cooking in stews like Braised Duck with Taro. Just be aware when you visit the market that not all taro are the same!
Water Chestnut (馬蹄)
Water Chestnuts or mǎ tí (馬蹄) in Chinese, are a crunchy tuber vegetable that grows in marshes and muddy waters. It has a nutty flavor and in spite of its name, bears no resemblance, flavor or texture to the chestnut. Water chestnuts are a common ingredient in many vegetable stir-fry dishes and sometimes are also added to shrimp dumplings. It is usually an optional ingredient as not everyone if fond of its texture and flavor but it is one of those foods that tend to grow on you the more you have them. Below is a picture of fresh water chestnuts with the skin still intact and the sliced and whole versions that come in cans.
Canned whole or sliced water chestnuts are usually available at Asian markets and some supermarkets Asian food aisles. Below is an amazon link to see the different brands available but the best bet is to buy them locally.
Arrowhead Root or Arrowroot (慈姑)
Arrowhead root or cí gū(慈姑) is one of those strange vegetables that we eat only once or twice a year, but every time we have it, we wonder why we don’t cook them more often. Truth is that most of these tubers are harvested to make arrowroot starch and most people don’t know what to do with them. That said, they do show up around Chinese New Year in Asian markets and perhaps it coincides with the season of these tubers but I actually have never research it. They have a unique flavor that grows on you, similar to a water chestnut but the texture of a potato. If you ever come across some in your local Asian store, then you must get a small bag and immediately run over to the butcher counter for a nice piece of pork belly to make one of Bill’s favorite recipes, Braised Pork Belly with Arrowhead Root. Judy really hit the target with this recipe because it is unbelievably good and so easy to make! It’s probably the only recipe you’ll ever need for arrowroot.
Stem Lettuce – Wo Shun or Celtuce (莴笋)
Celtuce, Stem lettuce or wō sǔn (莴笋) is the overgrown stem of a variety of romaine lettuce commonly known in Chinese circles as AA choy and can be found pretty easily in Asian markets. The flavor is subtle and you have to pause to realize what you’re tasting is concentrated lettuce flavor. It’s also an essential ingredients when making the classic, traditional Pork with Garlic sauce that originated in Chengdu. The Woks of Life version of pork with garlic sauce is in the works, so keep an eye out!
Chinese Yam or Huái Shān (山药)
Fresh Chinese yam known as huái shān (怀山) or shān yào (山药), is found in practically all vegetable markets in China and recently in Chinese grocery stores in the US as well. Personally, I (Bill) thought that this Chinese yam was called Chinese yucca and I also spelled it “Wy Shan” until I updated this page. Well, I must have been delirious while working late one night on this page because I think I may have just made that up. After some additional research, I have found that this root vegetable is in the yam family and it should be called a Chinese Yam, so I stand corrected.
Wikipedia says “In Chinese it is known as huái shān (怀(淮)山), shān yào (山药, 山藥) (lit. “mountain medicine.”), or huái shān yào (怀(淮)山药, 怀(淮)山藥) (lit. “mountain medicine from Huai”, i.e. Huai Qing Fu (怀庆俯) region)”
We have used both fresh and dried Chinese yam many times for our own healthy Chinese soups but we don’t have any published recipes using it yet, so a recipe using Chinese Yam is something we’re hoping to post soon.
Winter Melon (冬瓜)
Winter melon or dōng guā (冬瓜) is a type of squash or gourd that come in many shapes and shades of green rind. Winter melons are vaguely similar to a watermelon except they are fuzzy on the outside. The inside flesh is white and pleasantly sweet. It’s usually used in pork bone soup for its health benefits, but it’s also very tender and tasty when boiled.
Ridged Luffa (丝瓜)
Angled luffa, Chinese okra, and ridged gourd are all names I have seen for this ridged luffa. The Chinese ridged luffa or sī guā(丝瓜) is usually cooked in a chicken broth, sometimes with fried tofu or wheat gluten, and sometimes stir-fried with meats. It has a rough skin, so it’s best to use a vegetable peeler and take off most of the ridges before cooking. We have it every once in a while, but a recipe hasn’t made its way onto the blog yet, mostly because this is one of those very Chinese vegetables that has barely hit the mainstream of authentic Chinese restaurants, let alone the kitchens of home cooks.
Bill here for a little impromptu story time! Around the time when I first met Judy, I went to meet her family for the first time. They lived in a multi-family house in Brooklyn at the time and had small back yard. Being the country boy from upstate New York, I brought over some ridged luffa seeds and three bags of cow manure compost to plant them in. Now, why I chose to plant this ridged luffa I do not know, nor do I remember, but we emptied the bags of manure and planted the seeds (most average future son-in-laws would simply bring over a bag of oranges and call it a day). A couple of weeks after the seeds germinated, the vines started to grow like mad–we’re talkin’ Jack-and-the-Beanstalk level crazy growth, but still with no flowers and no luffas. But the vine just got bigger and bigger until it expanded to cover the entire back of the house and run down the wall of the building next to it. Then one weekend, we were welcomed by the most beautiful yellow blooms–there must have been fifty of them–and soon the luffas exploded en masse. We must have picked twenty of them every week! Needless to say, we were all a little sick of luffa after that summer.
Sponge Luffa (丝瓜)
The smooth Chinese luffa, like the Chinese ridged luffa, is also referred to as sī guā(丝瓜), sometimes referred to as the dishcloth/sponge gourd (charming names, eh?) is similar in taste and texture to the ridged luffa, but a bit more tender. It’s a little bit easier to prepare than the ridged luffa since it doesn’t have those long tough ridges. In China, it’s actually preferred over the ridged luffa. If left to grow on the vine, it gets so large and tough that you can actually dry it out and use it as a natural sponge! That aside, it is good eating when harvested at the right time (though we would understand if you wanted to try and cut down on sponge costs).
Opo squash or Long squash
We have cultivated this Opo squash in our garden and they are so easy to grow – almost too easy because with one plant, you can harvest dozens. We call them Chinese long squash because we have only seen them in Chinese grocery stores! They are quite tender and mild-tasting as long as they are harvested when small (less than 12 inches long). They are similar to zucchini in texture but even more mild in taste and are perfect for making vegetable noodles like in our Vegetable Noodles With Shrimp recipe.
Fresh Chinese Black Mushrooms (冬菇)
These days, you can buy these black mushrooms or shiitake mushrooms fresh in Asian grocery stores. The Chinese black mushroom is called dōng gū (冬菇) in Chinese, literally “winter mushroom” while the higher quality shiitake variety is called huā gū (花菇) or “flower mushroom”. Dōng gū black mushrooms are usually less fleshy than the higher quality shiitake mushrooms that are described in more detail in the next entry below. We use both varieties in everything–from noodle and rice dishes to stews. They add a meaty, umami deliciousness to any dish. We love them in our Soy Sauce Butter Pasta with Shrimp and Shiitakes and in our Mushroom Noodles.
In Beijing, fresh mushroom were quite cheap as you can see in the picture (8 Yuan or Chinese dollars roughly converts to $1.29 for slightly over a pound). But we did learn in China to not be fooled by cheap prices; we had to make sure that the mushrooms were not only cheap but also that they had not been previously washed. Vendors would wash them so they would soak up some additional water and weigh just a little bit more. Soon we learned to be more careful and we regularly purchased fresh mushrooms from a trusted vendor and dried them in our apartment in Beijing. Fresh mushrooms are also quite common here in the US, and when they are in season (and on sale), we can still dry them here as well. Generally speaking, the longer they are dried, the more fragrant they become.
Shiitake Mushrooms (香菇)
The Shiitake mushroom, called xiāng gū (香菇) or in Chinese, is a fancier variety that is referred to in Chinese as flower mushrooms or “fa gu”. These are closer in variety to the Japanese Shiitake mushroom and are generally meatier and thicker than the Chinese variety. Both have their uses in cooking but the higher quality Shiitake mushrooms are more expensive and used mostly during holiday or special occasions. The ones below are the dried shiitake mushrooms which are also called “fa gu” in Cantonese dialect, but so they look quite similar in their fresh state. In Mandarin, they are called huā gū (花菇) in Chinese, literally “flower mushroom” as they have a flowery pattern.
Enoki Mushrooms (金针菇)
These long, thin white enoki mushrooms have a crisp texture and very small caps and are also know in Chinese cooking as golden needle mushrooms or jīn zhēn gū (金针菇). You can find these fresh mushrooms in the grocery stores but they also come in cans as well. They’re often used in stir-fries and soups. Because they have such a mild flavor, you can pretty much add them to whatever you want!
Over the years, we have learned to like King Mushrooms, sometimes called King Trumpet mushrooms. With their subtle mushroom flavor and meaty texture, king mushrooms are often used as a meat substitute. Since the bulk of the mushroom is its stem, usually, you can’t tell what the meaty pieces in a stir fried dish until the chef or cook says “It’s King Mushrooms!”
King mushrooms seem to be named as such because of their massive stems. These are substantial and very versatile mushrooms–you can pan-fry them, stir-fry them, braise them steam them, or grill them. Try them in one of our vegan dishes, Kung Pao Mushrooms.
Straw Mushrooms (草菇)
Straw mushrooms or cǎo gū (草菇) come in various forms and are usually canned. They actually can look like small quail eggs when unopened and in that state are virtually impossible to pick us with your chopsticks. However, they are are also found in a peeled state and look more like a mushroom we are used to seeing. The flavor and slightly crunchy texture of these straw mushrooms are delightful as an ingredient in a stir fried meat and vegetable dish. Pictured below are good quality mushrooms that some Asian grocery stored sell by the pound.
Straw mushrooms are often available fresh in China and other parts of Asia. They are grown on rice straw beds and picked during the button or egg phase and before the veil ruptures. As you can see from the photo below, they look more like little eggs than mushrooms when they are fresh and in this premature stage but when they develop further and open up, they take on their characteristic umbrella mushroom shape.
You can find these peeled straw mushrooms in cans as well but be sure to buy a reputable brand as we have purchased some brands that are low quality with broken pieces where you can barely tell they are straw mushrooms. The Amazon link below have decent buyer ratings and you can probably find the same brand at your local Asian store.
Kelp Seaweed (海带)
Kelp seaweed or hǎi dài (海带) is produced mostly in China and cultivated and harvested from the sea in large sheets. Kelp seaweed comes in many dried forms but this variety shown here is available both in dried and reconstituted form pictured below from a local Chinese market.
This is an ingredient used in traditional Pad Thai recipes, but because they are relatively hard to find, it’s rare that they are served here in the US. Where we live, there are quite a few Asian grocery stores but at the time that we made our Shrimp Pad Thai, we couldn’t get our hands on any, though authentic recipes to call for it. We didn’t think that it was even available here in the US, but we did see them by chance at an H Mart about an hour’s drive from us. We still have not tried using it for Pad Thai or any other dishes but at least we now know we can get it!
Water Bamboo – Jiao Bai (茭白)
Water bamboo or jiāo bái is a type of water bamboo found commonly in China and is prepared in similar ways are other types of bamboo. Jiao Bai is also called gāo sǔn (高笋) and is actually the overgrown stem of Manchurian wild rice from what I read on Wikipedia. Found all over China and now in the US as well, it is particularly popular among the Shanghainese. Jiao Bai is commonly stir-fried but it can also be prepared similar to our Braised Spring Bamboo Shoots (油焖笋) recipe.
Tea Tree Mushroons (茶树菇)
Fresh Tea tree mushrooms or chá shù gū (茶树菇) are commonly found in China and I have never seen the fresh variety in the US. The good news is that these are found in dried form and be constituted.