As inflation rises, the supermarket may seem like a battleground for Australian shoppers. There are few horrors like the sight of a $12 price tag on iceberg lettuce.
But while the cost of common vegetables like broccoli and cucumber has jumped, a humble family has remained reasonably affordable. Enter: Asian Green.
Rain and cold hardy, Asian greens are church wide. But the “holy trinity”, according to Dan Hong – the celebrity chef behind Sydney restaurants Mr. Wong and Lotus – includes bok choy, gai lan (Chinese broccoli) and choy sum.
“They have a fairly mild flavor, so they’re very accessible,” he says. “They’re almost like a cross between spinach and broccoli.”
These vegetables have not been completely immune to inflation, but their prices have remained more stable than their Western counterparts.
“The price of Asian vegetables has actually gone up about 30-40% in the last couple of years, [after] staying at the same price for the last 20,” says Thanh Truong, product expert and former Plate of Origin competitor, who, along with his family, owns Australia’s largest Asian vegetable distributor. “However, Asian vegetables are [still] half the price of most vegetables you see in the supermarket.
A pile of bok choy, gai lan or choy sum sells for $2.50 at Woolworths and Coles. If you can get to an Asian grocer, prices are even cheaper: around $1.80 to $2.20, Truong says.
There is an added benefit to getting them from an Asian grocer. “They tend to sell them out faster than, say, your local Woolies,” Hong says, resulting in fresher produce. Like any leafy vegetable, you can check freshness by color. The best Asian greens are, well, green, and their skins will be thinner and more tender compared to overripe bunches.
Six ways with Asian greens
The absolute rule for cooking Asian greens is to cook them hard and fast.
“Most Asian greens have a higher water content and they’re generally much less fibrous,” says Palisa Anderson, market gardener and restaurateur at Sydney’s popular Chat Thai chain. “They are best suited for… high temperature cooking.
“The more you stretch it, the darker they will become. They will oxidize and brown very quickly.
A wok is great for the job, but fear not if you’re working with more prosaic equipment. Truong advises using “a pan that has a very thick base, like a steel pan” to recreate some degree of intense heat from a wok and stir-fry in batches.
Adding too many vegetables at once, he says, “will cause your vegetables to simmer instead of cook very quickly. And the whole point of cooking them very quickly – only in one to two minutes – is that you get the crispy skin, but you cook it all the way through.
When it comes to flavors, Hong recommends pairing the stir-fry with an Asian condiment: “Always add something like oyster sauce or soy sauce,” he says. “And always sauté with some aromatics in oil before adding greens – for example, garlic, ginger and chilli.”
For weather-appropriate application, try using Asian greens in soups. Truong recommends adding a variety called gai choy – or Chinese mustard greens – to the end of an existing broth recipe, such as a bone broth Where chicken brothto impart a unique leafy flavor to the dish.
“A lot of vegetables, when you add them to the soup, it has too much of a green effect… When you boil broccoli [for instance], you have the broccoli water left. You might not taste it, but you can smell it…and it’s kind of off-putting,” Truong says. “But a mustard green actually adds…a very soft softness.”
Another favorite among Asian greens is wombok, perhaps best known in its fermented form of kimchi. Like any stripping process, it takes time to achieve the desired result, so this may be an activity best suited for engagement.
The Guardian offers a five-day recipe for kimchi with wombok and daikon, though it can also be made with just about any leafy vegetable, including leftover vegetables.
Hong agrees. “I played with pickled bok choy,” he says, “and made kimchi with bok choy and choy sum. It works really well.
Jenny Lam’s recipe for Vietnamese preserved mustard greens – or dua cai – takes three to five days to ferment. From there, you can use them as is or turn them into pickles, which only requires 10 minutes of extra active preparation.
Those who are even more patient could try salting and drying their Asian greens – like this recipe, where the preservation process takes place over several weeks. Then, says Hong, you can “add it to soups, and it adds that… concentrated flavor that a lot of people use for vegan broths” as a substitute for the meat intensity.
“Every culture has a cabbage and pork situation,” says Anderson. Polish gołąbki is perhaps the best known, but Asian greens can also be used in the same way.
“It’s not easy,” she warns. “But if you want to be creative, you can stuff [the leaves] and roll them. The wombok is most commonly used: this recipe sees wombok leaves stuffed with a mixture of pork and shiitake then steamed, while another one fill them with fish.
Instead of other vegetables
In a pinch, it’s definitely worth trying Asian greens in Western recipes – something Hong has been doing “forever”.
“A typical Italian dish would be orrechiette with broccoli, right?” he says. “You can definitely replace the broccoli with Chinese broccoli.
“Any green you would typically cook with butter and garlic, such as spinach, you can use any Chinese green [in its place].”
On an experimental basis
Apart from these common Asian greens, there are a plethora of vegetables that might be less familiar to the average shopper, although they can still be prepared the same way. One of Truong’s favorites is water spinach, which can be jumped up with “vegetable oil, garlic, salt, sugar and fish sauce”, he says, “and it will be wonderful”.
Another variety on the left is the Chrysanthemum Leaf, which “almost looks like eating a…wild bush,” says Truong. “Think of rocket in terms of shape, but it’s a little bigger, longer, sometimes it’s a little stringy. Overall, its flavor is very unique. Grassy and lemony, it’s best sipped in fondue.
Above all, Truong has a tip for trying new vegetables to get their texture and flavor just right: “Eat so much of it at the restaurant that you like it before you cook it.
“Because cooking is much more difficult…but they do it so well in a restaurant.”