Chinese Broccoli (芥兰, gai lan in Cantonese or jiè lán in Mandarin) is a leafy green vegetable you can use in a diverse range of dishes.
Although they come from the same plant family, it is quite different from the regular broccoli florets you’re already familiar with, which is known as xī lán huā, 西兰花).
What is Chinese Broccoli?
Chinese broccoli is a leafy green-blue plant that has three primary parts––the leafy ends, the crunchy stalk, sometimes small, flowery buds.
Its structure is similar to regular broccoli, though the leaves and buds are much smaller. Depending on when the vegetables were harvested, you may or may not see these buds on the particular specimens you buy.
This vegetable has thick, dark green leaves that are soft and pliable like spinach, with a dull sheen to them. Their stems are firm, similar to broccoli or asparagus, and they taste somewhat similar to broccoli.
After cooking, they take on a sweeter taste and lighten to a bright green color. The tender leaves are quite delicious, as well as rich in calcium, iron, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C.
Asian supermarkets have now begun to stock baby Chinese broccoli, also called Chinese broccoli tips, pictured below:
The leaves and stems are more tender, and you’ll get less stem per stalk.
Choosing mature vs. young vegetables is ultimately a personal preference.
Is Gai Lan the same as Broccolini?
An extra fun fact… Have you seen those expensive bunches of “broccolini” (also sometimes labeled, “baby broccoli”) in your local supermarket?
That’s just a hybrid of your regular old cafeteria broccoli and this Chinese broccoli. Mix ‘em together, and you’ve got a fancy name and supermarkets charging $3.99 for a tiny bunch. Go figure.
Broccolini has long, tender stems characteristic of Chinese broccoli, with loose florets that are somewhere between regular broccoli and gai lan buds.
How To Prepare Chinese Broccoli
Chinese broccoli can be cooked in a stir-fry, boiled, or steamed. You can also use it as a bed to serve braised dishes on, or serve it as a delicious side dish in its own right.
One preparation question many of you have asked in the comments is how to deal with those thick stems.
The answer is to cut off the ends (about 1/4-inch) and then, using a paring knife or vegetable peeler, trim the tough outer skin off the bottom three inches of each stem—similar to what you might do for asparagus.
This will make the stalks more tender and less bitter, while also helping them cook faster. Yes, you can eat the stems, and you can even use the same technique on western broccoli!
Note that if you buy baby Chinese broccoli, you can just trim a little off the ends. There is no need to peel the stalks.
One popular method of preparing gai lan is by blanching in boiling water (with a tablespoon of oil added to make the leaves shiny), and serving the vegetables whole with a drizzle of oyster sauce. You may have seen it before on dim sum carts!
Read more about this popular, simple preparation in our recipe for Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce.
If making a stir-fry, you can slice them at an angle after trimming. This gives the broccoli stems more surface area and texture, while also making them easier to eat.
A personal favorite recipe that uses this ingredient is our Beef with Chinese Broccoli, which showcases it in a delicious and easy-to-cook meal.
Buying & Storing
Chinese broccoli is quite common, and can be found in Asian grocery stores all year round. Like all vegetables, prices vary seasonally, but are generally quite reasonable.
When shopping for this leafy green, look for healthy blue-green leaves and avoid any produce with yellowing or wilting leaves, brown spots, or too many flowers. If you see many yellow buds/flowers, the vegetables are likely overly mature or not fresh.
Baby Chinese broccoli are the same as the larger variety, but harvested earlier. As a result, they have thinner stems and smaller leaves, making them more tender. Again, this means you can skip the extra step of trimming outer skin from the base of the stem.
Store in the plastic bag it came in, preferably in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. For best results, use within three days. Always thoroughly wash before cooking (we triple wash all greens in our kitchen), because sand and dirt can cling to the leaves and stems.
The best method for washing these greens is to put them in a large bowl or basin (or clean sink) filled with cold water. Agitate the vegetables with your hands to loosen any dirt, and soak for 5-10 minutes. This allows any dirt to settle to the bottom of the basin.
Then lift the vegetables out of the water into a colander, clean out the basin, fill with fresh water, and repeat this process 1-2 times.
Substitutions for Chinese Broccoli
Though Chinese broccoli has a distinct taste and texture, you can substitute it with a number of other greens, including yu choy, bok choy, and broccolini.
Our Favorite Dishes That Use This Ingredient
Chinese broccoli is a key ingredient in several of our recipes. This vegetable is also great as a simple side dish, whether you decide to blanch whole stalks or stir-fry smaller cut pieces.
Here are a few recipes to try:
What’s your favorite way to use this ingredient? Let us know in the comments below.