Welcome to our Chinese vegetables and Chinese leafy greens page! We have reorganized our ingredients list and made Chinese vegetables in its own category so you can quickly access and identify your favorite Chinese vegetables. This list is definitely not totally comprehensive, and we may not have used all of these vegetables in our recipes yet; but this is a great go-to reference for some of the more popular Chinese leafy greens out there. As always, let us know if you have any questions or requests to enhance this page!
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.
Preparing your Chinese Vegetables
For a successful dish of Chinese vegetables, you must follow a few simple rules on how to prepare, cut, and thoroughly wash your leafy green vegetables. Chinese leafy green vegetables grow in sandy soil and like any other green vegetable has to be washed thoroughly
1. Start with the best fresh Chinese vegetables which means you should be picky about the quality that you purchase. The veggies should be young and tender, have a vibrant green color without any yellow leaves of dark spots and finally, none of the leaves should be wilted.
2. Cut off the ends of the stems and pick off any damaged or yellowing leaves. Next, cut the veggies into bite sized pieces or leave them long if doing a simple blanched veggie dish.
3. Wash, Wash, and Wash! Green vegetables have a good amount of dirt in them and you definitely don’t want any in your final dish. Washing the vegetables thoroughly also removes most of the pesticide or herbicide residue. We usually fill a large stainless steel or plastic bowl with cold water, dump in the cut vegetables, give them a good swishing and agitation and let them soak for a few minutes to loosen the dirt. Next, remove the veggies to a large colander and repeat the process another two times. It sounds like a lot of work but definitely a worthwhile effort and we often use the water for our potted plants.
4. After the final washing, let the vegetables drain thoroughly since you want your veggies to be moist but not dripping wet. Be sure to use the veggies within an hour or two of washing for best results.
5. Your veggies are now ready for the wok!
Now on to the glossary and list!
Bok Choy (白菜)
This Chinese vegetable, called bok choy, bái cài (白菜) and literally “white vegetable” has many different varieties that have made its way into everyday grocery stores. There are three sizes, large, medium, and small. Often, you’ll find the gigantic ones with white stalks and large, dark green leaves. These are older and a little bit tougher, but still quite tender as leafy greens go. Kaitlin likes chopping it up for salads, as it’s surprisingly sweet and mild tasting.
For the majority of your Chinese dishes, however, you’ll want to go to a Chinese grocery to find the smaller, more tender specimens with fat, light green stems. These come in two sizes, regular (the aforementioned “medium”) and the small size. The smaller of the two is quite common today and our preferred kind. You may see it referred to as “green bok choy” or “Shanghai baby bok choy.” It’s more common today, as they are harvested earlier, making them more tender. Be sure to try the Garlic Baby Bok choy recipe as a healthy side dish!
Like any leafy green, these are typically pretty sandy, so be sure to wash thoroughly! Three soaks in cool water should do it. Make sure there’s no sand or dirt between the layers of each bunch. Cutting them in half or in quarters lengthwise prior to washing helps things along.
Below, you can see the difference in varieties between the white bok choy versus the green bok choy. In general, the white bok choy comes in larger plants and in general, the green bok choy are usually sold when they are younger and more tender. From our experience, the larger white bok choy is more readily available in supermarkets and are great for salads and either of them are a delicious choice for a stir-fried green veggie side dish! Check out our Basic Stir-Fried Bok Choy Recipe that uses the large white bok choy variety pictured on the left below.
Chinese Broccoli (芥兰)
This Chinese broccoli, jiè lán (芥兰) pronounced in Mandarin or gai lan (Cantonese) looks nothing like your garden-variety florets that you find in western supermarkets even though it shares the same family as regular broccoli, which by the way is known as xī lán huā(西兰花) or literally western broccoli.
Got that difference now? Broccoli with florets is western broccoli. Chinese broccoli has long green stems and dark, thick leaves that characterize this vegetable. Some compare it to broccoli rabe, and sometimes jie lan will be harvested with edible flower buds in small bunches. However, in general, Chinese broccoli is sweeter and much less bitter than broccoli rabe. I like all three varieties but Chinese broccoli is called for specifically in some dishes like the simple Chicken with Chinese Broccoli or Beef with Chinese Broccoli.
These days, it’s quite easy to find Chinese broccoli in some gourmet supermarkets that have Asian produce. And if you’re lucky, you can sometimes find baby Chinese broccoli, also called Chinese broccoli tips, in certain Asian grocery stores. When shopping for this leafy green, try not to select stalks that are too thick, have too many open flowers, or have yellow leaves. This means the veggie is too old, tough, or simply not fresh. When preparing, cut off the ends and peel the tough outer skin off the bottom three inches of each stem, similar to what you would do for asparagus. You can see a nice picture of the trimming job in the simple yet much-loved Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce.
And an extra fun fact–ever see those expensive bunches of “broccolini” in your local supermarket? That’s just your regular old cafeteria broccoli crossed with this Chinese broccoli. Mix ‘em together, and you’ve got a fancy little name, plus supermarkets charging $3.99 for a tiny bunch. Go figure. The price of Chinese broccoli, like all vegetables, is seasonal but prices are quite reasonable and usually cheaper in Asian grocery stores.
One preparation tip that many of you have asked about in our post comments is how to deal with those thick stems, like you see in the picture above. The answer is to trim the tough outer skin of the broccoli stems as the base. If making a stir-fry, cut off the stem where I think they begin to get tough and them use a knife or a vegetable peeler to strip off the tough exterior, leaving the tender and juicy insides that cook as quickly as the rest of the tender leaves and stems. You can them cut these at an angle or in slices and add them right to you stir-fry dish. If you are blanching and serving them whole with oil and oyster sauce, just trim the base of the stem where they are tough until you reach the tender portions and you’re ready to go!
Chinese Choy Sum (菜心) or Yu Choy（油菜）
Choy sum or cài xīn (菜心) in Mandarin) or yóu cài (油菜), pronounced Yow choy in Cantonese, is a another common and popular Chinese leafy green vegetable. Although it looks somewhat similar, it should not be confused with Chinese broccoli. The taste of choy sum is much sweeter and more tender than the Chinese broccoli. The texture of these is a bit closer to bok choy. We love these because they are mild in flavor and go great as a side dish or addition to tons of different dishes.
Yu Choy is literally translated as “oil vegetable” because it is in the family of rapeseed and actually used to produce oil. Another fun fact is that a variety of Yu choy or rapeseed is grown primarily to produce Canola oil, which is very common and one of our favorite oils we use for stir frying. Canola oil is claimed to be one of the most healthy vegetable oils and no wonder if it is derived from such a healthy green vegetable!
Choy sum is literally translated as “vegetable heart” which refers to the edible stem or stalk you see in the picture below. These vegetables are generally grown until the plant just begins to show signs of shooting and flowering but these days, they are also picked early as young plants about 3 to 4 inches high and this is when they are at their best and sweetest tasting. Home gardeners frequently cut the tips off let the rest of the plat grow more before they are finally harvested. We grow these in our garden and hope to share a post and pictures one of these days.
This versatile dark green, leafy vegetable can be sautéed, added to soups, stir-fried, or blanched alone. Flavor agents include soy or oyster sauce, ginger, and garlic. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Sarah came up with a unique Creamy Roasted Choy Sum Pesto Pasta that is definitely worth checking out! Aside from that, it is used as the green veggie in quite a few noodle dishes like 15 Minute Chinese Hot Oil Noodles (You Po Mian) or Pan Fried Noodles with Chicken (Gai See Chow Mein).
Chinese Water Spinach（空心菜）
Chinese Water spinach is a long, leafy green vegetable with hollow stems that is grown in water or damp soil. It also goes by the name of “ong choy” in Cantonese or “kōng xīn cài” (空心菜) in Mandarin, which translates to ‘hollow heart vegetable”. It is commonly known as Kang Kung in Southeast Asia and you may see it on the menu with this name if you go to a good Malaysian restaurant. But, in our family, it’s known as the hollow veggie, a name given to it long ago by two young Chinese girls trying to order some good food at a restaurant without a lick of Chinese vocabulary under their belts (yah, that’s Sarah and Kaitlin!).
Chinese Water Spinach is sold in large bunches at the market. In fact, the stalks can get as long as eighteen inches. When cooking, it’s cut into three to four-inch lengths and cooked with garlic or fermented bean curd or with belacan shrimp paste. Surprisingly, even the hollow stems are quite tender as long as the tougher lower 1-2 inches of the stalks are trimmed away. Recently, we saw young and tender water spinach in the market which is a delight to prepare and eat. Just give them a quick rinse as no trimming is needed since everything is tender and edible.
We also recently learned that Chinese water spinach is considered an invasive and noxious weed in some parts of the country, but, for now, its cultivation and sale is still allowed. Just do you part to eat them and we won’t have a problem! We have a very early post on preparing Stir-Fried Water spinach but we’re due for another dish featuring this tasty vegetable soon, so stay tuned!
Chinese Spinach or Amaranth (苋菜)
Sometimes called Chinese spinach, pronounced in Cantonese as “hin choy” and in Mandarin as “xian cai” (苋菜), this leafy green vegetable is best stir-fried simply with garlic and salt, as it’s similar in flavor to spinach (Check out Stir-Fried Pink Amaranth Greens). Two main varieties are grown, one with a deep magenta color in the center of the leaves, and the other a light green. The green variety actually grows in the wild, at least, according to our experience. When Bill was young, his mother discovered that it had made its way into her garden somehow, and it just came back every year like a perennial. She called it “horse poop vegetables” because in China, these veggies thrived growing in horse dung! Tastyyy…All jokes aside though, you can find bunches of these vegetables in Chinese grocery stores and, we have found, in Indian produce stores! Though we’re not sure how they’re used in Indian cuisine. When buying these, look for bunches that don’t have any budding flowers, which is an indication that they’re too mature and may be tough.
Chinese Napa Cabbage (大白菜)
Chinese cabbage, now commonly known as napa cabbage, is large, pale green, and very mild in flavor. Napa cabbage originated near the Beijing Region of China, so it was no surprise to us to see napa cabbages sold at Beijing wet markets by the truckloads! In Mandarin, it’s called “da bai cai” (大白菜) which translates into “big bok choy.” Bok choy, cabbage, who the heck knows when translating from Chinese to English and transporting from China to America. (Hence, this guide!!!)
Napa cabbage is used in soups, stir-fries, slaws, and many noodle and dumpling dishes. The water content of this vegetable is quite high, and, when cooked, it has a pleasantly sweet and juicy taste to it. It’s a vegetable frequently used when making pot stickers or pork buns but is definitely the vegetable of choice when making Shanghai Style Spring Rolls or Stir-Fried Rice Cakes (Nian Gao). It’s also the vegetable of choice for lo mein noodle dishes; we use it in our recipes for Beef Lo Mein and Vegetable Lo Mein.
Chinese Napa Cabbage can usually be found in mainstream chain supermarkets. Make sure that you pick cabbages that feel firm and are pure in color (i.e. without any tiny brown or black spots, which means they’re not fresh). If your cabbages develop these little spots as they sit in your refrigerator, the flavor will likely have turned bitter. Life is just too short to be eating old napa cabbage that will ruin your lo mein, so be prompt with these when you bring them home from the supermarket!
Chinese Celery (芹菜)
This Chinese celery or qín cài (芹菜) is longer and thinner than regular celery, with a very strong celery flavor. That being said, it’s really not for everyone. Even the most tender batch of Chinese celery can be a little tough and pack a ton of fiber and celery flavor. Similar to the western variety, the stalks are mostly consumed since the leaves are usually way too bitter. Chinese cooks use this celery mostly for stir-fry dishes. If you like celery, you may just love this variety–we love the kick it lends to stir-fries.
We have one dish in our collection that is an oldy but a goody: Jen’s Tofu Stir-fry. Although the recipe may have called for common celery, we usually use the Chinese celery.
Shepherd’s Purse (荠菜)
Shepherd’s purse or jì cài (荠菜) is a leafy green wild vegetable that’s eaten most commonly in and around the Shanghai area. It can be added to soups and porridges, but it’s probably most popular as a filling for dumplings, won tons, and steamed buns alongside ground pork. It has a really unique flavor, and, although it’s available fresh in China, it’s usually only available frozen in the U.S (which is just as well, because we’ve found that these delicate leaves are very sandy and a pain in the neck to clean!). Nowadays, shepherd’s purse is cultivated and it seems that everyone in Shanghai over 50 years old say that the cultivated varieties don’t come close to the strong aromatic flavors of the wild varieties they used to eat. It seems that the flavor depends on the variety and how it is grown because every once in a while, you get a real nice tasting batch. Look for it in the frozen vegetable section of your Asian grocery.
If you can’t find it in your local Asian market and you have a garden, then go a buy some Shepherd’s purse seeds and grow it yourself! Once you have tried it, especially in wontons or dumplings and potstickers, you will know why it’s worth the trouble! They grow easily like weeds but because they do look like weeds, be sure to keep a picture of then plan handy! Here’s a picture and link to reference fresh Shepard’s purse!
We have quite a few dishes in our collection that use Shepherd’s purse, probably because our family loves the flavor and because Judy is from Shanghai. But Shanghai or not, if you have access to this tasty green veggie, then you must try it! It’s a key ingredient in the dumpling recipe we’ve been making for years: The ONLY Dumpling Recipe You’ll Ever Need). Another family favorite that uses Shepherd’s purse is the Shanghai Sticky Rice Cake Stir-Fry. We ate this dish quite a bit in China, so we’re all too pleased that we can recreate it back in the US.
Chinese Mustard Greens (芥菜)
Chinese mustard greens or jiè cài (芥菜), sometimes called Indian mustard, leaf mustard, or mustard cabbage, is a very healthy vegetable. We don’t use it much because it is kind of bitter (well, very bitter)–so much so that it’s usually cooked with lots of ginger and some sugar to take the edge off the bitterness.
Chinese mustard greens are also used to make picked vegetables, which we DO eat fairly often. It’s sometimes eaten alone with congee but is most often used for cooking dishes like pickled mustard cabbage with squid or pickled mustard cabbage with chicken. We don’t have these recipes on the blog (YET), but we do have Mei Cai Kou Rou (Steamed Pork Belly w/ Preserved Mustard Greens) and Noodle Soup with Pork and Pickled Greens.
Watercress or xī yáng cài (西洋菜) is another one of those vegetables that our family eats quite often yet has not made its way into any of our recipes on the blog. It’s a rather mild tasting vegetable when cooked, but tastes somewhat peppery when eaten raw (think arugula). Like the name suggests, it is an aquatic vegetable that thrives in cold water and is quite commonly found in the wild. Bill probably has the most experience with this; when growing up in upstate New York, he and his family used to drive up to a little known spot deep in the Catskills to pick big bunches of watercress that grew in the spring-fed streams. This place got to be quite well-known amongst the four (or was it five?) Chinese families that lived in Sullivan county, NY, and the women of these families would make periodic drives to pick bunches and bunches of fresh, wild-grown watercress together. Those were the days!
A little more recently, we found watercress in Sedona, AZ while on a family trip. Being the hunters and gatherers we are, we had a fine side dish that night to go with the grilled chicken and steaks at the timeshare where we stayed. But when we can’t get it in the wilds of good old North America, we settle for a few bunches at $1.29 apiece at our supermarket. 2-3 bunches is usually the optimal amount for a nice side dish.
Pea Shoots, Pea Leaves, or Pea Tips (豌豆苗)
Pea shoots, wān dòu miáo (豌豆苗) or simply dòu miáo is a tasty vegetable that is readily available these days in many restaurants and Chinese markets. “Pea leaves” is probably the most accurate description for this veggie as the plants that are harvested are more than just sprouts with fairly large leaves as you can see from the picture below. In fact, I think the larger leaves are actually more tender than the smaller sprouts you sometimes find that are cut when they are only 3 to 4 inches high!
Dòu miáo has become fairly popular recently, and can usually be found all year around (at varying price points, of course), but the big season is in the fall and winter when you can get them more readily and for more reasonable prices (at least here in the Northeast). Our theory on this is that during the spring and summer, farmers are growing beans and peas for the beans and peas! So there’s no reason to harvest the leaves; during this time pea leaves may sell for as high as $6.49 a pound. Yes, they are light in weight but $6.49 a pound is starting to approach close to the price of a good cut of beef! (Makes us miss Beijing, where we could get plentiful seasonal vegetables for a fraction of what they cost in the US!)
We recently posted a Stir-Fried Pea Tips dish that looks great and tastes even better, especially if you’re a lover of leafy greens, like us. Give it a try if you can get your hands on some of these tender leaves!
Cǎo tóu – Edible Clover (草头)
The leaves––and a portion of the stem––of the edible clover or Cǎo tóu (草头) have a sweet and light grassy flavor, and they cook very quickly. Although some types of clover are edible, there are different varieties––some of which can be toxic. Like mushrooms, you have to know what you’re doing if you want to go out and forage for them.
That’s our disclaimer, but from what I have read on the internet, you have far less of a chance of eating toxic clover than say, eating toxic wild mushrooms. I have read that toxic varieties only grow in hot weather climates, which is perhaps the reason why it is only available during the cooler spring months.
In any event, the safest path is to have them in restaurants or to buy them from the market. The catch is that I have only seen them sold in Shanghai vegetable markets and only in spring. We have the recipe here for Cao tou edible clover which is really easy to prepare!
Tong Ho – Edible Chrysanthemum (茼蒿)
Edible Chrysanthemum or tóng hāo (茼蒿) have two main varieties that are also available outside of China. One variety is small or medium leaf tong ho pictured below with small and deeply serrated leaves. This variety is commonly offered in Chinese restaurants as a stir-fried leafy green vegetable. Tong ho has a unique and aromatic flavor when harvested early when the plants are young and tender. This picture of small/medium leaf tóng hāo (茼蒿) was taken from a wet market in China.
Large or broad leaf tóng hāo (茼蒿)has rounded and wider leaves that are also thicker and larger and much shorter stems. Although this variety is also stir-fried, we see this broad leafed variety offered a a vegetable for hot pot meals. From our experience, the broad leaf variety has a stronger aromatic flavor than the smaller leaf variety but like anything else. it really depends upon the location and harvest of the batch you get.
Ma Lan Tou (马兰头)
Ma Lan Tou(马兰头), also known as Kalimeris indica, Indian aster or Indian Kalimeris, is a flowering herbaceous perennial plant that just happens to be edible and one of the many favorite vegetables of the Shanghainese. Although Ma Lan Tou is mainly found in eastern Asian countries of China, Korea and Japan, according to Wikipedia, it has also been introduced to California and Hawaii. Here is a picture of fresh cut ma lan tou fron a wet market in Shanghai during our visit in spring of 2016.
Ma Lan Tou has wide culinary uses in East Asia. Young leaves and stems are collected in early spring time and is considered a delicacy because of its special flavor. Although it has a flavor that may remind you of Tong Ho (茼蒿), edible chrysanthemum leaves, they are completely different and these two varieties should not be confused. It is very rare to find this in markets outside of China and in fact it is mostly available in Shanghai but we have found Amazon sellers who sell live plants and we have provided you the links below for convenience.
Vegetable Seeds are also available why We may try in our garden so we have flowers and vegetables to eat!