|Eat your vegetables, they're good for you. It's a mantra we've all heard since childhood and one that holds true more than ever today. Decades of medical research confirm what many Asian countries have believed for years: a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains is the healthy way to fight off diseases and maintain a healthy weight. A traditional Asian diet emphasizes rice and vegetables, with small amounts of meat.
While vegetables are jammed packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, there are many reasons why kids and adults don't eat the recommended daily amount. Taste is likely the number one reason, followed closely by lack of variety. For those who want to go beyond the standard broccoli, lettuce and potatoes, navigating the world of unfamiliar vegetables with unusual names can be daunting. However, once you embark into the world of Asian vegetables and become acquainted with the different types of available, you'll soon notice that a lot of these vegetables are merely Far East cousins to their Western counterparts.
Most people will recognize the bok choy as one of the more well known Asian vegetable. Although it has a variety of names (pak choy, Chinese white cabbage, Chinese chard), it can be easily recognized by its fleshy white stems and dark green, flat ribbed leaves. Bok choy is loaded with Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Calcium and is often used in Chinese soups and stir-fry. It can also be used in place of cabbage in a Filipino dish known as Pancit. In Thai recipes, bok choy is referred to by another name, pak kwahng toong. When buying bok choy, look for firm stalks without brown spots. They will keep for a week if wrapped in a paper towel and stored in crisper bin of your refrigerator. When you're ready to cook them, rinse well and drain, then cut into stems into manageable pieces. It will cook faster. Bok choy is done when the leaves are slightly wilted and the stalks are tender. It should be cooked first and then combined with other ingredients.
Other members of the bok choy family include choy sum or bok choy sum, and yu choy. Choy sum means heart in Cantonese, and is also known as Chinese flowering cabbage.
Slimmer in appearance than bok choy, it has smooth green leaves, pale green stems and distinguishable clusters of tiny yellow flowers. Yu choy, also known as green choy sum, can be identified by its green stalks and tender leaves. Both are used in many Chinese stir fry dishes. To use, simply wash and cut into small pieces. Choy sum can go directly into stir-fry without blanching, while the yu choy can be prepared the same way as the bok choy.
Not to be confused with the Chinese white cabbage, the most commonly used vegetable in Thai stir fried vegetable is the napa cabbage, which has a sweet mild taste. It is also known as Chinese cabbage and celery cabbage, and is identifiable by its long, pale green leaves with wide white stems. A fresh napa cabbage is firm and devoid of tiny black spots on its leaves, and can be prepared in a variety of ways.
While similar in taste to the Western broccoli, the Chinese broccoli, also known as gai lan or Chinese kale, does not have the familiar large flower heads. Instead, it has large dark green leaves with small white flowers, and is most commonly eaten trimmed of most of its leaves since its stems are juicier. Chinese broccoli should be washed and the ends cut. Trim to bite size pieces and blanch before combining with other ingredients.
Vegetables sharing names with their Western counterparts include Chinese celery and Chinese eggplant. The Chinese celery has long, thin, hollow crispy stems and is smaller and more delicate than American celery. It is used in Chinese and Vietnamese stir fry and soups. The Chinese eggplant is longer and more slender than the regular purple or black colored eggplants found in supermarkets. Its skins vary in color, ranging from light to dark purple, to brown or green. They can be cooked without peeling the skin and in a variety of ways, such as in stir fry (Chinese), Tempura or pickling (Japanese), stuffed or baked (Indian and Vietnamese).
Members of the legume family include azuki beans, or red beans, used throughout Asia in soups, desserts, and cake paste. Azuki pods are edible, much like snow peas, which are peas in flat edible pods. Snow peas are excellent in salads. The pod of edamame, also known as edible soybean or mao dou, is not edible, however, but the beans inside the pods are delicious and often found in Japanese cooking. Another bean familiar in Chinese cooking is the beansprout, identifiable by its long white sprouts and yellow bean heads. Beansprouts are crispy and tender and readily found in most supermarkets, and are actually the tender sprouts of the mung bean, which are recognizable by its green skin and delicious in salads. Other members include the Yard Long Bean, also called the Chinese Long Bean because of its length range (14 to 30 inches), and can be cut and cook like common green beans or deep fry with ginger or in rolls of beef or pork.
When we think of melon, it's probably the fruit variety that comes to mind. In Asian cooking, it is the vegetable kind that shows up in various dishes. The bitter melon, also referred to as bitter gourd or foo gua in Cantonese, is used mostly in Asian and Indian cooking. Its nutritional value includes vitamins A, C, B1, calcium, potassium and beta carotene. When choosing a melon, keep in mind that green bitter melons tend to have a bitter taste, while the yellow-orange ones are milder. To reduce bitterness, blanch in boiling water for 2 or 3 minutes before tossing in stir-fry. It can also be used in soups. Other melon family members include the fuzzy melon, also called hairy melon, mo gua in Cantonese, Chinese squash, or winter gourd, which is delicious in soups and distinguishable by its various shades of green skin and white flesh, and the winter melon, called dong gua in Cantonese or white gourd, is also use in soups or steam with meat.
The vegetables we've mentioned are only a moderate compilation of what is actually available and consumed by Asian countries. Why not explore the exotic world of Asian vegetables at your pace? When you're ready to turn your discoveries into delicious fare, our Cookbooks section will show you how. You'll soon discover a whole new way to tantalize your palate and turn a healthy diet into a healthy lifestyle.
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