Asia is home to a variety of unique vegetables that have been incorporated into Asian cuisine for many centuries. In the United States, many of these vegetables can only be found in specialty Asian markets. Finding fresh Asian vegetables can be difficult, and many people in the Americas must settle for canned or frozen Asian ingredients, especially during winter months. Those who are unfamiliar with these unique Asian plants can learn about different varieties of Asian produce, what they are used for, and what can be substituted in case these vegetables can’t be found.
Bamboo Shoots – Edible shoots of the bamboo plant, used in a variety of Asian dishes. Often cooked in coconut milk in South Asian curries, soups and other dishes. Also an ingredient Vietnamese and Chinese stir fries. Often served pickled throughout Asia. Bamboo shoots have very little flavor, but are enjoyed for their crisp texture.
Betel Leaf – In Vietnam, betel leaves are used to wrap beef for cooking. Grape leaves can be substituted.
Bok Choy – (a.k.a. Chinese cabbage) A leafy vegetable with dark green leaves and a white stem, shaped like celery. Used frequently in Chinese Cantonese cooking. Regular Western strains of cabbage can be substituted.
Chili Leaves – The leaves of the chili pepper plant are cooked as greens in the Phillipines and Japan and are used to make kimchi in Korea. Other greens, like mustard greens, can be substituted.
Chili Peppers – There are so many varieties of chili peppers used in Asian cooking that they could compose a book. Chilies in Asia are used to create sauces and condiments and to add heat to soups, curries, stir fries, salads and other dishes. In India, fresh whole green chilies are often served by themselves with a meal. Here are a few specific species of chili that are unique to Asia:
- Bogra Peppers – A popular chili pepper in Bangladesh that is known for its heat intensity. Grown in the Jessore district. Named after Bogra, one of the oldest towns in Bangladesh.
- Naga Jolokia Peppers– The hottest pepper in the world, naga jolokia is mostly grown in south Asian and is used as a cure for stomach problems, or as a repellant for wild elephants. These peppers can be eaten, but precautions must be taken to avoid burning of skin or eyes. This pepper has a Scoville rating, or heat rating, of 1,041,421, which is two to three times hotter than the hottest habanero pepper.
- Thai Peppers – (a.k.a. bird’s eye chili) – A very small chili that is particularly spicy, used in Combodian, Laotian, Thai, Vietnamese, Malay, Indonesian, Indian and Singaporean cuisine.
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Whenever Asian peppers cannot be found, other peppers, like jalapeños, Anaheim peppers and ancho peppers can be used instead. However, keep in mind that since different varieties of pepper have different levels of heat, you may need to adjust the quantities of the substitute pepper accordingly.
Chinese Chives – An onion-like plant, flatter than regular chives with a garlic flavor. Can be substituted with garlic shoots or regular chives, although you should use about twice as many regular chives to achieve the strength of flavor of Chinese chives.
Gai Lan – (a.k.a. Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale) A long stem ending in bluish colored leaves. Flavor is similar to broccoli, but sweeter. Stem must be blanched before stir frying to avoid over-toughness. Broccoli or kale can be substituted.
Gourd – The first plant to be domesticated by humans, gourds are rarely consumed as food outside of Asia. In Japan, gourds are pickled and used in sushi and other dishes. In China, gourds are juiced and served as a beverage. Gourds can be found easily throughout the world.
Lotus Leaves – The leaves of the water lily, used as a wrapper for steamed foods in Eastern Asia. They give the food an aromatic flavor reminiscent of tea. The leaves are not eaten, and are used only to impart flavor to whatever is being steamed. Used to make a popular steamed dim sum dish called “nor mai gai,” which consists of rice wrapped in the lotus leaf and steamed. Can be replaced with grape leaves or betel leaves.
Napa Cabbage – A whiter Chinese cabbage with lighter leaves than the bok choy plant. Common ingredient to Chinese and Japanese food as well as Korean kimchi. Can be replaced with bok choy or Western cabbages.
Pandan leaves – Long, spear-like leaves used in Southeast Asian and Chinese cooking in rice dishes, curries and a dish called “pandan cake.” Often used to accompany chocolate in desserts. The leaves are divided into long strips and tied in a knot before cooking.
Seaweed – An algae used in Japanese and Chinese soups, as a wrapper for sushi and in salads. Also used in Korean kimchi and other east Asian cuisine. There are many varieties of seaweed.
- Gim – Dried Korean sheets of seaweed, thinner than nori and often seasoned with sesame oil and salt.
- Hair Seaweed – common ingredient in Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Often served in China during the Chinese New Year.
- Kombu – An edible form of seaweed used to make dashi, a Japanese soup stock, and tsukadani – seaweed simmered in mirin and soy sauce. Can be eaten pickled, dried or fresh in the form of sashimi. Can also be brewed in boiling water to make kombucha – “seaweed tea.”
- Nori – Dried Japanese sheets of seaweed, made from porphyra algae. Used to create sushi rolls, or makizushi.
Tiger Lily Buds – (a.k.a lily flowers, golden needles) The young bud of the tiger lily, with a chewy texture and a musky taste. Usually, these buds are tied in a knot, then soaked in hot water before being eaten.
Ward-Long Bean – (a.k.a. yardlong bean, asparagus bean, snake bean, Chinese long bean) A large bean about one and a half feet long that can be eaten fresh or cooked. Often used in Southern Chinese or Malaysian stir fries or salads. Can be replaced with green beans.
Water Chestnuts – Vegetables that grow in marshes and swamps. The white bulb, or corm, of the vegetable has a crispy texture and is used in a variety of Chinese dishes. They have very little flavor, but are starchy and high in fiber, and have a crisp texture.
Daikon Radish – A popular root vegetable in Japanese and Chinese cooking. It is a large, carrot-shaped white radish. It is used in soups and stews, stir fries, salads and sushi. The sprouts have a spicy flavor and are commonly found in soups. Other varieties of radish can be used if daikon is not available.
Galangal – A root vegetable resembling ginger in appearance, but not in taste. It has a floral, citrusy aroma and a piney, flowery taste. Used in a broad variety of dishes throughout Asia, being particularly popular in Thai soups and Indonesian cuisine. Ginger should be substituted only as a last resort.
Ginger – A fibrous root or tuber that has a wide variety of culinary applications in every Asian cuisine. It can be cooked fresh or used as a dried spice, or it can be pickled. Pickled ginger is often served alongside sushi. Ginger can be used in baking or in candies as well as in savory dishes. The root is easy to find in most supermarkets.
Krachai – (a.k.a. fingerroot, Chinese ginger) A plant whose subterranean stem resembles yellow carrots or fingers. It is used in Thai cooking, particularly in fish curries and soups, or peeled and served raw with a rice dish to create khao chae. Galangal is a good substitute, or substitute ginger if galangal cannot be found.
Lotus Root – A sweet root that is often eaten in stir fries or steamed as a dessert. A popular component of Chinese congee – a rice porridge eaten as breakfast. Also a popular addition to soups. Can also be eaten fried, or pickled and added to salads. Water chestnuts or Jerusalem artichokes are a good substitute.
Taro Root – A starchy bulb root that is used as a vegetable throughout Asia. Common uses include curries, Indian pancakes, fritters, porridges, Chinese desserts, bubble tea, or in Cantonese dim sum in the form of taro cakes or taro dumplings. Toxic when eaten raw. Substitute cassava, yams or parsnips when taro is not available.
Turmeric – A root in the same family as ginger. Turmeric is bright yellow and has a hot, earthy taste. It is found in many curry dishes. In most cases, the root is dried, ground and sold in its powder form.
Wasabi – A spicy root related to horseradish. Wasabi has a different type of spiciness than chili peppers, and stimulates the sinuses more than the tongue. In its paste form, it is a popular condiment and ingredient in Japanese dishes, especially sushi. Hot mustard or horseradish are good substitutes.
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