Welcome to our Chinese leafy greens page! This list is definitely not comprehensive, but it is a great go-to reference for some of the more popular Chinese leafy greens out there. You’ll even find some more obscure ones that we haven’t used in our recipes yet!
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. As always, let us know if you have any questions or requests in the comments!
Preparing your Chinese Leafy Greens
For a successful dish of Chinese leafy greens, you must follow a few simple rules on how to prepare, cut, and thoroughly wash them.
Many Chinese leafy green vegetables grow in sandy soil, and like any other vegetable, have to be washed thoroughly. We use a large stainless steel bowl that generally follows the same process…
- Start with the best fresh Chinese vegetables. Be picky about what you purchase! The veggies should be young and tender and have a vibrant green color without any wilted or yellow leaves or dark spots.
- It’s always a good idea to give the whole vegetables a wash and rinse before cutting them.
- Next, cut the veggies into bite sized pieces or leave them whole if doing a simple blanched veggie dish.
- Wash, wash, and wash again! Green vegetables have a good amount of dirt in them, and you definitely don’t want any in your final dish. We usually fill a large stainless steel bowl with cold water, dump in the vegetables, and give them a good swish in the water to loosen any dirt. We let them soak for 5 minutes or so to loosen the dirt. Next, we transfer the veggies to a large colander, refresh the water, and repeat the process another two times. It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s definitely a worthwhile effort. Plus, we use the water for our potted plants!
- After the final washing, let the vegetables drain thoroughly, since overly wet veggies make for subpar stir-fries. Be sure to use the veggies within an hour or two of washing for best results.
Your veggies are now ready for the wok! Now, on to the glossary and list!
Bok Choy (白菜)
Bok choy or bái cài (白菜), means “white vegetable.” There are many different varieties that have made their way into grocery stores. “Bok choy” is actually the Cantonese pronunciation of the vegetable, and that name has stuck in English! 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 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.
Check out our Basic Stir-Fried Bok Choy Recipe, which uses the large white bok choy variety, pictured below.
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 small size. The smaller of the two is quite common today and our preferred option. You may see it referred to as “green bok choy” or “Shanghai baby bok choy.” Be sure to try our super-simple Garlic Baby Bok Choy recipe as a healthy side dish!
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 is usually sold when they are younger and more tender.
From our experience, the larger white bok choy is more readily available in supermarkets and great for salads.
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.
Shanghai Bok Choy (上海白菜)
Shanghai bok choy is what we find in restaurants more often than not. They tend to be sold in smaller sizes as they’re more tender, but the larger size can still be found in most Asian markets. We love the smaller, tender, and slightly sweet green bok choy vegetables for cooking at home.
In China, these beautiful Shanghai baby bok choy vegetables are arranged neatly in the grocery stores and wet markets.
These compact tender bok choy plants not only taste better, but they make for a much nicer presentation and are essential for dishes like the Braised Chinese Mushrooms with Baby Bok Choy.
Dwarf Bok Choy (奶油白菜)
In Chinese grocery stores, dwarf bok choy is sometimes called and labeled, 奶油白菜 or nai you bai cai, which translates to “cream bok choy.”
These dwarf bok choy look like a miniature version of the large white bok choy, but they are actually a special variety. They are a bit stubbier, and the dark green leaves are distinctively curly and sweet tasting!
You can see how we prepared and used this dwarf bok choy in our quick and easy beef vegetable stir fry.
This dwarf bok choy variety has become more common. A well-stocked Chinese or Asian market should have many bok choy varieties for you to choose from! You can even grow these at home if you like to garden by purchasing your own extra dwarf bok choy seeds!
Chinese Broccoli (芥兰)
This Chinese broccoli, jiè lán (芥兰, Mandarin) or gai lan (Cantonese) looks nothing like your garden-variety florets. Even though it shares the same family as regular broccoli (which is known as xī lán huā, 西兰花, or literally western broccoli), Chinese broccoli has long green stems and dark, thick leaves. Some compare it to broccoli rabe, and sometimes it will be harvested with edible flower buds in small bunches. However, Chinese broccoli is sweeter and much less bitter than broccoli rabe.
These days, it’s quite easy to find Chinese broccoli in supermarkets that stock a selection of Asian produce. (If you’re lucky, you’ll find baby Chinese broccoli, also called Chinese broccoli tips.)
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 old, tough, or simply not fresh.
One preparation tip that many of you have asked about 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 trim the tough outer skin off the bottom three inches of each stem—similar to what you might do for asparagus.
If making a stir-fry, you can then cut them at an angle or in slices. If you are blanching and serving them whole with oil and oyster sauce, just trim the base of the stem, and you’re ready to go! You can see a nice picture of the trimming job in our simple favorite, 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 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.
I like all three varieties of broccoli, but Chinese broccoli is a key ingredient in dishes like our simple Chicken with Chinese Broccoli . You can see how we prepared the Chinese broccoli in our recipe post for Beef with Chinese Broccoli.
Chinese Choy Sum (菜心) or Yu Choy（油菜）
Choy sum, also known as yu choy, is another common and popular Chinese leafy green. In Mandarin, they’re known as cài xīn (菜心) or yóu cài (油菜). Don’t confuse it with Chinese broccoli. The taste of choy sum is much sweeter and more tender, with a texture closer to bok choy. We love these because they are mild in flavor and go great as a side dish or as an addition in many different recipes.
Yu choy translates to “oil vegetable,” because it is in the rapeseed family, and the seeds are used to produce cooking oil.
Choy sum translates to “vegetable heart.” 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. This is when they’re at their best.
Home gardeners frequently cut the tips off to let the rest of the plant grow more between trimmings. We grow these in our garden and hope to share a post and pictures one of these days. This versatile vegetable can be sautéed, added to soups, stir-fried, or blanched and served with oyster sauce.
Our Easy Chinese Yu Choy Sum side dish is done in 5 minutes! 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 our 15 Minute Chinese Hot Oil Noodles (You Po Mian) and 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’s commonly known as Kang Kung in Southeast Asia, 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 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 18 inches. They are cut into 3-4 inch lengths and cooked with garlic and fermented bean curd or belacan shrimp paste.
Surprisingly, even the hollow stems are quite tender, as long as the lower 1-2 inches of the stalks are trimmed away. Just give it a quick rinse. No other trimming is needed, since everything is tender and edible. For more details on the different types and how to cook them, see our complete article on Chinese Water Spinach.
We also recently learned that Chinese water spinach is considered an invasive weed in some parts of the country. For now though, its cultivation and sale is still allowed.
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.
There are two varieties: 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” or in the Hakka dialect, “ma see hen tsoy” because in China, these veggies thrived in horse manure! Tastyyy…
All jokes aside though, you can find these in Chinese grocery stores and, we have found, in Indian grocery stores! 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.
You can check out our recipe for Stir-Fried Pink Amaranth Greens.
Chinese Napa Cabbage (大白菜)
Napa cabbage is large, pale green, and very mild in flavor. In Mandarin, it’s called da bai cai (大白菜) which translates into “big bok choy.” In Cantonese dialect, my parents always used to refer to napa cabbage as “wong nga bok.”
Napa cabbage is used in soups, stir-fries, slaws, and many noodle and dumpling dishes. The water content of this vegetable is quite high. When cooked, it has a pleasantly sweet and juicy taste to it. It’s a vegetable frequently used when making potstickers or pork buns, and is definitely the vegetable of choice when making Shanghai Style Spring Rolls. It’s also a vegetable of choice for lo mein dishes. We use it in our recipes for Beef Lo Mein and Vegetable Lo Mein.
Chinese Napa Cabbage can usually be found in mainstream supermarkets. Choose cabbages that feel firm and are pure in color (i.e. without any tiny brown or black spots).
Perhaps the quickest, yet most satisfying home-cooked dish is our Sichuan Napa Cabbage Stir-fry (Suan La Bai Cai).
Taiwanese cabbage is a flat pumpkin-shaped cabbage and is a much better alternative to your standard green or purple cabbage found in most supermarkets. These Taiwanese cabbages, also sometimes known as Chinese cabbages, might not look all that different from your everyday cabbage, but they taste much sweeter and crunchier, even after they’ve been cooked. Try this variety of cabbage for your stir-fry dishes, and trust me, you’ll never look back!
Savoy cabbage is similar to the everyday green cabbage found in most supermarkets, with subtle differences. Due to the crinkly leaves, savoy cabbage is also known wrinkled cabbage.
The flavor of savoy cabbage is less harsh than your standard cabbage, yet has much less water content than napa cabbage, so it’s great for stir fries and egg rolls.
If you can’t find Taiwanese cabbage, you can use green cabbage or savoy cabbage instead.
Chinese Celery (芹菜)
Chinese and western celery are both called qín cài (芹菜) in Mandarin and kun choy in Cantonese. Both have the same name even though they are quite different. Chinese celery is longer and thinner than regular celery, with a very strong celery flavor. 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-fries, and it does produce a great flavor.
We have one dish in our collection that is an oldie but a goody: Jen’s Tofu Stir-fry. Although the recipe calls for common celery, we usually use Chinese celery.
Shepherd’s Purse (荠菜)
Shepherd’s purse, or jì cài (荠菜), is a leafy green wild vegetable eaten most commonly in and around the Shanghai area. I’m not sure if there is a Cantonese pronunciation, because I’d never heard of or tried jì cài before I (Bill) met Judy.
Jì cài can be added to soups and porridges, but it’s probably most popular as a filling for dumplings, wontons, 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 says the cultivated varieties don’t come close to the strong aromatic flavors of the wild varieties they used to eat. But every so often, we get a particularly good batch nonetheless! 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, 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 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) in Mandarin and gai choy in Cantonese, 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. On the bright side, most, if not all bitter vegetables, including these mustard greens, are very healthy! For more detailed information, see our complete article on Chinese Mustard Greens.
Chinese mustard greens are also used to make pickled vegetables, which we DO eat fairly often. Learn how to make a Cantonese-style pickled mustard, or haam choy, from my grandmother, who’s going on 104 years old!
It’s sometimes eaten alone with congee, but is most often used for cooking dishes like pickled mustard greens with squid or pickled mustard greens with chicken. Other recipes we have that use pickled or preserved mustard greens include 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) and sai yeung choy in Cantonese, is another one of those vegetables that our family eats quite often. 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.
I probably have the most experience with this! When growing up in upstate New York, my family and I 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 are usually the optimal amount for a nice side dish. Enjoy this vegetable in a quick and easy stir-fry using our recipe for Healthy Stir-Fried Watercress with Garlic.
Or maybe drop it in a Sai Yeung Choy soup to warm you up in the cold weather!
Pea Shoots, Leaves, or Tips (豌豆苗)
Pea shoots, wān dòu miáo (豌豆苗) or simply dòu miáo (similar pronunciation in Cantonese) is a tasty vegetable that is readily available these days in many restaurants and Chinese markets. “Pea leaves” is probably the most accurate term 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.
Dòu miáo has become fairly popular recently, but the big season is during the fall and winter when you can get them more readily and for more reasonable prices (at least here in the Northeastern U.S.). They can sell for as high as $6.49 a pound. Yes, they are light in weight, but $6.49 a pound can be steep! (Makes us miss Beijing markets, where we could get plentiful seasonal vegetables for a fraction of what they cost in the U.S.!)
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)
Edible clover or cǎo tóu (草头) has a sweet, light grassy flavor, and cooks 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.
In any event, the safest path is to have them is 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—which is why we would classify this as a Chinese vegetable! We have our Shanghai style Stir Fried Cao Tou recipe here, which is really easy to prepare!
Tong Ho – Edible Chrysanthemum (茼蒿)
Edible Chrysanthemum—tóng hāo (茼蒿) in Mandarin or “tong ho” in Cantonese—comes in two main varieties. One variety is a small or medium leaf tong ho, pictured above with serrated leaves. This variety is commonly offered in Chinese restaurants as a stir-fried leafy green vegetable. Tong ho has a unique, aromatic, and bitter flavor.
Large or broad leaf tóng hāo (茼蒿) has rounded and wider leaves with much shorter stems. This variety often comes stir-fried or as an add-in for hot pot. From our experience, the broad leaf variety has a stronger aromatic flavor than the smaller leaf variety.
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 perennial and one of the many favorite vegetables of the Shanghainese. Although malantou can be found across eastern Asian countries, we discovered it in a market in Shanghai during our visit in spring of 2016.
Young leaves and stems are collected in early spring and are considered a delicacy because of their special flavor, which may remind you of edible chrysanthemum leaves. We’ve rarely found this here in the U.S., but there are a handful of Amazon sellers offering live plants and seeds, which you can find via the links below.
We may try planting them in our garden next season, so we can enjoy both flowers and a harvest of vegetables!
Try our recipe for this classic Shanghai dish, Ma Lan Tou Spiced Tofu.
Yam Leaves – Dì Guā Miáo (地瓜苗)
Sweet yam leaves, or sweet potato leaves, have a long string of nicknames in other parts of the world. “The queen of vegetables!” “The longevity vegetable!” “The anti-cancer vegetable!” Yam leaves are heart-shaped with long stems and have a very mild flavor. Though they are not considered one of the more common Chinese vegetables, we love them.
Some research has shown that yam leaves are more nutritious than spinach, celery, carrots and cucumbers when it comes to vitamin B, iron, zinc, protein, antioxidants, and calcium. They are also rich in vitamin A and C and supposedly enhance immune function, boost metabolism, lower blood sugar, improve eyesight, and act as an anti-inflammatory.
Make sure that you are eating sweet potato leaves and NOT potato leaves in the nightshade family that contain solanine, which is toxic to humans. Just get your yam or sweet potato leaves at a reputable Asian grocery store, and you’ll be just fine. Check out Judy’s recipe for stir fried yam leaves (di gua miao)!
AA Choy – AA Cai (AA 菜) or You Mai Cai (油麦菜)
AA Choy is the leafy portion of celtuce or wo sun, and is a common leafy green vegetable that is very popular in both Taiwan and China. Wo sun is the large edible stem portion of the plant when it matures. It is usually sliced like a bamboo shoot and stir-fried. AA choy is a refreshing leafy green that tastes a lot like romaine lettuce (not quite as crunchy) and is usually stir-fried with fresh chopped garlic or blanched and served with an oyster sauce topping (similar to yu choy sum). You may also see a similar vegetable (many of these are from the same lettuce family) referred to as you mai cai or 油麦菜 in Mandarin.
Taiwanese Spinach – Táiwān bō cài (台湾菠菜)
Taiwanese Spinach is a dark green leafy vegetable with long stems. Looks are deceiving though, because the Taiwanese spinach stems are quite tender and packed with flavor and nutrients!
Taiwanese spinach tastes similar to the common spinach we usually see in supermarkets, but it is milder in flavor. Don’t confuse this vegetable with amaranth or water spinach, which are quite different! This is a great vegetable to have stir-fried with fresh garlic or simply cooked quickly in any traditional Chinese soup.
Malabar Spinach (木耳菜)
Malabar spinach, pronounced mù’ěr cài (木耳菜) in Mandarin, is commonly found in China, but is still rare in the U.S. and other western countries. Mù’ěr cài is translated directly as “wood ear vegetable” and is similar in consistency and texture to cooked okra. Malabar spinach tastes similar to spinach and is used often in soups and hot pot, but like almost every vegetable on this list, it can be simply stir-fried with garlic, salt, and oil.
Ji Mao Cai – Chicken Feather Vegetable (鸡毛菜 )
Chicken feather vegetable, pronounced jīmáo cài 鸡毛菜 and sometimes called máo máo cài in Mandarin, is a very common vegetable found in markets around China. There really is no common English name for ji mao cai, because it is not readily available outside China.
This vegetable is in the same family as brassica chinensi, which includes various kinds of bok choy. Sometimes called Nanjing cabbage, it is thin and gangly and resembles bok choy, if it were picked when very young. The leaves and stems are super tender, and you will find them served in China stir-fried in garlic, salt, and lots of oil.
Little Bok Choy (小白菜 )
Little bok choy, pronounced xiǎo bái cài (小白菜) in Mandarin, is a vegetable that I have not seen in the U.S. anywhere. It is a clean tasting leafy green vegetable, delicious when stir-fried in garlic, salt and oil. I will update this entry when I learn more about it.
Tatsoi , or brassica rapa, is an Asian variety of choy sum that is seen mostly in China but is starting to become popular in western countries. The Mandarin name is actually tā kē cài (塌棵菜 ). It is tat choy in Cantonese. Tatsoi has dark green round leaves that are wrinkly and dense which form a thick rosette.
I always stop by grocery stores and markets in China when I can and I ask the vendors what these vegetables are called locally. The vendor displaying these vegetables in a small market in Beijing called them Chrysanthemum vegetables or jú huā cài (菊花菜), a very much appropriate name given that they do look a bit like a Chrysanthemum flower.
You can see the bottom of the chrysanthemum vegetable here. Generally, the vegetable leaves are cut off close to the stem and the stem is discarded. The best part of the Tatsoi are the leaves which have a tender sweet flavor.
Bing Cao or Ice Grass (冰草)
Bing Cao, or mesembryanthemum crystallinum, is an unusual vegetable we encountered in China. It may also be referred to as bing cai, or in English as “ice plant” or ice greens. We encountered it in a local supermarket packaged and ready for purchase.
We had these vegetables for the first time at a restaurant in Shanghai. The texture was crunchy, fresh and full of moisture, and they had a very mild flavor. When we asked locals at the restaurant, they said it was called bing cao 冰草––“ice grass” or “frozen grass.”
They were served raw in a salad with a sesame dressing, or plain as you see in the photo with vinegar and something that tasted like thousand island dressing.
Let us know if you have any questions about the ingredients we listed here, and happy cooking!