Get to know the most common Asian vegetables, leafy greens, mushrooms and aromatics with this 101 guide. These are vegetables commonly used in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and South-East Asian cuisines (Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, etc.). It will inspire you to cook with new, nutritious plant foods.
If you have ever visited Asia, or even just your local Asian supermarket, you will know that the variety of greens and vegetables is a little bit different than what you might be used to eating. Asian cuisine is popular all over the world for a reason. Unique flavours, ingredients, and downright delicious methods of cooking food make for some of the most incredible culinary experiences around.
Why try more Asian leafy greens & vegetables
So, why branch out? I have long been a big proponent of eating as wide a variety of food as possible while also trying to honour a diet that best suits your health needs. First and foremost, expanding your knowledge of produce choices gives you the option to try new and exciting flavours and textures. New recipes and ingredients can inspire you, make you feel more confident in the kitchen. If you’re a big fan of Asian takeaway, your budget and your belly will thank you for learning how to do it yourself.
Moreover, it’s important to expand your diet to increase the kinds of nutrients you receive. For example, cycling greens can help you to cover all your bases and ensure that you’re getting those micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals in a healthy balance. Most Asian greens are rich in vitamins A, K, and C in addition to folic acid, calcium, and antioxidants making them nutritional powerhouses.
Where to get Asian greens and vegetables
When you’re looking for these new ingredients, there are a few places you’ll want to look. First, check out the selection at the store you typically shop at whether it’s a big greengrocer or your local co-op. Many large grocery stores have a huge variety. You simply may not have noticed some of the more obscure ingredients there while sticking to your list in the past. Health food stores, which are becoming more and more common, will typically have some variety as well. However, these stores are more likely to change their selection with the seasons.
The best option is an Asian grocer or your local Chinatown which will have several markets to choose from and knowledgeable help! If you live in a sizable city, you can likely find a speciality market like this. Here, you will find loads of imported goods, unique produce, and all of the pantry staples for authentic Asian cooking at home.
Lastly, you may consider growing some of these ingredients on your own. If you are in the right climate, growing greens, herbs, and veggies is fairly easy to do – even if you don’t have a lot of space. Keep in mind that especially in Southeast Asia, the climate is very warm and tropical. If you live in a similar climate, you may have better luck!
LIST OF ASIAN Vegetables
Chinese cabbage / Wombok / Napa cabbage
Napa cabbage is high in folic acid, vitamin C, and vitamin B, vitamin K, and antioxidants. It’s also low in calories and high in fibre. Napa cabbage is versatile; it’s great for stir-fries or stews meaning it can be cooked a little or a lot. You can also use it raw in a salad.
It’s slightly sweet in flavour and will soak up the taste of whatever ingredients are used to prepare it. It’s popular in many types of Asian cuisine such as Chinese and Korean dishes e.g. hot pot and kimchi. You can also swap out regular green cabbage with napa cabbage in many recipes such as soups, stuffed cabbage rolls, and more.
Choy sum / Yu Choy (morning glory on the menus)
This leafy green is distinct due to its yellow flowers which is how you may recognise it. It’s also commonly referred to as morning glory on restaurant menus, in case you are unfamiliar with the name choy sum or yu choy. This leafy green is most commonly used in Chinese cuisine. The taste can be described as fresh and sweet. If you like sweet greens, this is a great swap for bok choy, spinach, or kale when steamed or stir-fried with garlic. You can swap it for any leafy green in recipes.
Bok Choy / Pak Choy / Pok choi
This popular green is a variation of Chinese cabbage. It is distinct because its base is often white or a lighter shade of green, while the leaves on top are green. There are two types of bok choy: regular bok choy which is more suited to traditional Cantonese methods of cooking and Shanghai bok choy which is more widely available in American markets. You may also find bok choy regularly sized and baby bok choy.
Bok choy is rich in vitamin A, C, and K in addition to folate, B6, and calcium making it a healthy choice. It makes a lovely steamed side dish. The taste is mildly bitter and comparable to spinach. Baby bok choy can be eaten whole. The vegetable can be steamed, braised, simmered, or used in a stir-fry. It is prone to overcooking and tastes better when cooked just long enough.
Chinese Celery / Nan Ling celery / leaf celery
The distinct feature that sets this celery apart from the celery you are likely familiar with is the thinner, curved, and hollow stalks. When cooking, the leaves of these stalks are also used, while you may be more accustomed to tossing the leaves. This celery is also significantly smaller than western celery. It is a good source of vitamins A, K, and C. It’s also high in folic acid and niacin. Like western celery, it is also low in calories. In China, it is considered a digestion aid.
Unlike western celery, Chinese celery is seldom served raw. Most commonly, you will find it stir-fried. It may also be used as a herb, deepening and strengthening flavour in dishes that are stewed, braised, or boiled.
Chinese Spinach / Water Spinach / Ong Choy
This is a very common green used all across Asia in countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. It is prepared in countless ways from the Penang dish with cuttlefish to being served raw in Thai papaya salads. Commonly, it is stir-fried with ingredients such as garlic, chiles, and ginger. It is even used medicinally in various ways across Asia.
When buying Chinese spinach, you might be impressed by its length. It can be up to a foot and a half long, so look out for long stalks when you’re perusing the produce. The entirety of the plant is edible. You can use Chinese spinach in any stir-fried greens dish.
Fun fact: in the United States, Chinese celery is considered a noxious weed in some areas (e.g. Florida and other parts of the southeast). You may be able to forage it in the wild and even do a good deed for the environment at the same time.
Gai Choy / Chinese Mustard / Mustard Greens
If you’ve had regular mustard greens, you probably have a good idea of what gai choy tastes like. It’s a bit pungent and peppery giving it a unique flavour in comparison to other greens that better resemble sweet cabbage or bitter spinach. When cooked, the pungent flavour is dialled down and the greens have a brilliant depth making gai choy a standout choice.
Chinese mustard greens are good in stir-fries and also taste yummy pickled in brine. This green is also used in Chinese medicine as an anti-inflammatory agent. You could use gai choy in place of western mustard greens, collard greens, beet greens, and other similarly spicy greens. Like many Asian greens, it’s high in vitamin A, C, and K.
Chinese Broccoli / Gai Lan / Kai Lan / Chinese Kale
Chinese broccoli very much resembles broccolini and can be used in place of it. In fact, broccolini is a cross between gai lan and regular broccoli. It is mildly bitter in taste, but that can easily be reduced by blanching and cooking the veggie. It is very common in Chinese food, but you may also find it in Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese cuisine. Like many Asian greens, gai lan comes together with a little garlic and ginger beautifully.
These greens have one of the most vibrant displays of colour, streaked with pink and purple hues. You surely won’t miss these at the market. They have a lovely flavour when cooked, but like many other greens, retain bitterness when eaten raw. These greens fit seamlessly into all types of stir-fries, soups, and all things simmered. Because of their colour and flavour, they are most similar to beet greens and can be used in place of them. When purchasing amaranth greens, look for young leaves without flowers.
Tatsoi has a sweet taste for greens, and the leaves are smooth and buttery in texture. They’re milder than mustard greens. Because of its more neutral flavour, it is very versatile and you can use it in most recipes that call for any type of green. It can be used raw in salads (where you may have seen it before) or lightly cooked. You can use it as a substitution for spinach. The leaves resemble slightly larger brussels sprouts leaves. When choosing your tatsoi, look for glossy, dark green leaves. Nutritionally, tatsoi has loads of vitamin C, carotenoids, folic acid, calcium, and potassium.
Snow Peas / Pea Shoots
Snow peas are rather common, having infiltrated markets beyond those that sell speciality items. Similarly, the pea shoots that grow before the peas come to maturity may also be found in the same markets. They most notably host a variety of B vitamins as well as vitamin K. The pea shoots are a ‘superfood,’ meaning they pack a punch in a small package. You can sub snow peas for sugar snap peas, and the pea shoots can substitute other sprouts or leafy greens.
Bitter melon is a unique and strange-looking gourd that people harvest for its edible fruit. It looks like a fusion between a bumpy green gourd and a zucchini. It’s a staple veggie around Asia – especially India. This fruit is pretty nutrient-dense and most notably high in vitamin A, vitamin C, and folate.
As you might assume from its namesake, the bitter melon has a bitter taste. Traditionally, it was first used for its medicinal properties such as cleansing powers, treating diabetes, and improving the blood. But, the flavour is unique and loved by many. Cooking bitter foods with balancing ingredients makes it much more palatable. You can enjoy both the health benefits and the taste of this strange melon.
Chinese long beans or runner beans
If you enjoy green beans, you will enjoy these beans as well. Similarly, they are harvested for their edible pods and often stir-fried for serving. What sets it apart is the length. Sometimes, they are referred to as the yardlong bean. While not quite one yard, they can grow to 1.5 feet long! They are rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, and magnesium.
Kabocha squash or Japanese pumpkin is very similar to butternut squash or traditional pumpkin. Its outer appearance is quite different, however, boasting green and orange skin. Inside, the flesh is orange and slightly sweet like a pumpkin. It is notably more starchy and less creamy while having sweeter notes akin to sweet potato. The skin is also edible.
In Japanese cuisine, it is often used in tempura or deep-fried. In Korea, you may find it in porridge. In Thailand, you may get some in your dessert. It’s easy to use and versatile. You can make soups by blending it or cube and roast it for a tasty side with other veggies.
Daikon radish is a winter root vegetable and a mild-tasting radish. It’s less spicy than the red radish you might know. It’s also much larger, tending to be a longer veggie. If you see them at the store, you might be impressed by their size! It’s almost like a white carrot. Daikon is most well-known because it’s a prominent ingredient in traditional kimchi from Korea.
It can be had both raw and cooked. It makes for a nice crunchy garnish or even a snack for dipping into hummus or guacamole. You can also top off your favourite soups and salads with it for a flavorful crunch. Lastly, it’s a good source of vitamin C.
Turnip radish looks more like your traditional red radish, except it’s pale in colour and much larger in size. It’s also a root vegetable rather than a species of plant, which is what a radish is. It grows in many countries.
Like the daikon, the turnip is often eaten as the primary vegetable in Asian dishes, such as a platter of sauteed slices. It”s also commonly eaten in its pickled form.
Chinese turnips are rich in potassium and are a source of calcium and phosphorus. They are also rich in folate, vitamin E and vitamin K, as well as containing vitamin C and members of the B vitamin group.
Shiitake mushrooms are one of the more common Asian veggies, growing in popularity at big box grocery stores. They make a really flavorful addition to so many meals! Their taste is super savoury. Unsurprisingly, they’re super healthy as well. They are a great source of vitamin B5, copper, niacin, and riboflavin so you can trust you’re getting in a B-complex with a few servings of these tasty mushrooms.
One of the best things about mushrooms is that even if you struggle to find them fresh, you can use them dried to enhance foods and make new recipes. Both fresh and dried have many uses. Fresh shiitake mushrooms will provide a deeper umami flavour, if that’s what you’re going for. They are also traditionally used in Chinese medicine like many other mushrooms.
Oyster mushrooms are amongst the most coveted and delicious fungi around the world. You will recognise them because their caps look like a fan. With an increased interest in meat substitutes, it stands in well as a vegan replacement for grilled meats due to its tender flesh and meaty, savoury flavour. They also soak up the flavour of rubs and sauces brilliantly.
They are also sold dried and fresh, grown commercially worldwide for consumption due to their popularity and versatility. The dried oyster mushrooms don’t need to be rehydrated prior to adding to your dish, either! This makes it an awesome pantry staple. They easily blend into soups, braises, and stir-fries while also possessing the culinary capacity to be the main course.
These mushrooms are tiny but mighty. They are white and short with small caps and skinny stems, sold in bunches. They are commonly used in Japanese dishes and are often added to a soup. They’re mild in flavour and rather crisp and crunchy in texture. It is native to both North America and Eastern Asia so you may have luck foraging these mushrooms in those regions.
Unlike the eggplant you may be familiar with, Thai eggplants are small, golf ball-sized, and round. They’re also often green. However, there are a few varieties and they may also be white, yellow, or purple. They are often found cooked in Thai curries or raw in Thai salads. The taste is quite bitter, but they absorb the flavour of the sauce they’re cooked in. Outside of Thailand, they can be hard to find and aren’t commonly used.
As the name suggests, lotus root is a starchy root vegetable with a mild flavour and taro or beet-like texture when cooked. It cannot be eaten raw. The Chinese consider lotus root to be a cooling food that is thought to restore balance to the body. It is often added to a stir-fry or soups, but it may also be found in desserts
Bamboo shoots are a delicious ingredient found in Asian dishes and broths. Bamboo shoots must be boiled or canned prior to eating because they contain natural toxins. They are a good source of fibre and contain phytochemicals that may possess antiviral and antibacterial properties.
Bean sprouts are typically cultivated from mung beans. They can easily be grown at home with a sprouting lid for a mason jar. They are often found tossed into a stir-fry, but you may also see them in soups or in spring rolls. They are rich in antioxidants and healthy addition to many dishes. However, due to their moist growing environment, they also possess a high risk of foodborne illness due to bacterial contamination so be sure to check your sprouts for freshness.
Baby corn is the immature product of a typical corn crop. It is most commonly found in a can in the Asian section of grocery stores making it a good addition to your pantry or fridge for adding to foods. The fresh variety isn’t typically found outside of Asia. The taste of baby corn is pretty sweet and if found in a brine, can have a great crunch and pickled flavour. You may see them in stir-fries, curries, and noodle dishes.
Taro is a starchy veggie common in Asian cuisine and growing in popularity worldwide. It has darker brown skin and the inside is white. It has a taste comparable to sweet potato with nutty notes, but it’s more absorbent so it takes on the flavour of whatever you cook it in. It’s a good source of fibre and vitamin C. You may see it as an ingredient in veggie chips or even in bubble tea! You can mash it, make fries out of it, or roast it. Basically, you can use it any way you would a potato. Plus, it’s quite versatile with potential for desserts as well.
Water chestnut is harvested for its edible corms which can be eaten raw, boiled, brined, grilled, or tinned. It can even be ground into flour which is what the popular dim sum dish of water chestnut cake is made from. Turns out, it’s a very versatile ingredient! Their taste is mild with slightly sweet notes and a crunchy texture, somewhat comparable to apple or coconut. Water chestnuts are healthy for you, containing a good amount of vitamin B6 and some other B vitamins.
Green papaya is simply an unripe papaya. Unlike the ripened version, it’s much less sweet and juicy. It’s often found shredded in papaya salads or pickled, taking on a much more savoury flavour than the fruity essence you might typically associate with papaya.
POPULAR ASIAN Aromatics
Ginger is not an uncommon ingredient, especially if you cook Asian food. It’s amazingly aromatic and commonly found in grocery stores both fresh and ground. The root is not only used in food but has long been thought to have medicinal properties and may be considered a superfood due to its gingerol content which is anti-inflammatory and antioxidants compounds. It’s also known to reduce nausea, improve weight loss results, and help stabilise blood sugar.
As for the flavour of ginger, it’s spicy and pairs well with sweet, warm spices such as cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon. It can also be used on its own in drinks like ginger tea or ginger ale. From savoury dishes to dessert to medicine, ginger can really do it all.
Like ginger, garlic is pretty common. It’s also not limited to Asian cuisine. It’s been consumed for thousands of years! It’s an absolute staple and you’ll almost always see garlic used to start off any recipe. It deepens the flavour and is easily sourced at any grocery store fresh or dried. Moreover, it’s been used medicinally for hundreds of years as it has been shown to possess antibiotic properties.
It can be consumed both raw and cooked. Most of the time, the bulb of the garlic is eaten but you can consume other parts of the food such as garlic scapes (long, green stems). Garlic is aromatic with a pungent flavour. The key to maximising flavour is not burning the garlic! Make sure not to toss it in too hot of a pan. One of my favourite ways to have it is roasted! You can use roasted garlic as a delicious condiment since the method of cooking really mellows out the flavour making it less strong and creamy in texture for spreading or adding to any dish that needs a boost.
Chilli is used to spice dishes up, of course. Many Asian dishes are a little spicy, but you can always add chilli if you prefer to amp up the heat. It’s especially good in oil as a condiment. Chilis are commonly found fresh and dried. There are many varieties and heat profiles will vary between them. An especially common variety is the Thai red chilli which is ground in to curry pastes and is used to infuse oils that you’ll find in stores.
Other Asian chilis include Kashmiri chilis used in India, The Santaka chilli used in many stir-fries and known for being flavourful, and the Japones pepper (Japanese pepper).
Turmeric is well-known these days due to its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s a superfood ingredient when it comes to healthy food bloggers and wellness pros. It’s also been used in Asian cuisine and traditional medicine for a long time. The main active ingredient in turmeric – curcumin – is the showstopper when it comes to the health benefits of this vibrant yellow spice.
Many stores sell turmeric both fresh and dried. Combining turmeric with black pepper will help to make the curcumin more bioavailable and easily absorbed in the body. Turmeric gives many Asian dishes the colour that makes them so distinct such as rice dishes like pilaf or curries.
Galangal is similar to ginger in the way that it looks. It belongs to the same family. However, galangal is a bit more rare than ginger and can be difficult to find – especially fresh. You may have more luck finding it dried. It also tastes much different with notes of pine and citrus. Galangal is most commonly found in Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian cuisine. You may have tasted it in Tom Yum or Tom Khai Gai soup!
Lemongrass is a citrusy stalk that is crushed to release a beautiful, fresh, and zesty flavour to many Asian dishes. The taste might be best compared to ginger. It is mostly found in Thai food but also common in Indian, Sri Lankan, and Indonesian food. Lemongrass can be used both fresh and dried, though dried lemongrass takes a while to rehydrate which is something to consider when using it.
Typically, the stalks are crushed or punctured prior to using them in a dish. This allows the lemongrass to release flavour during cooking. When the final meal is served, the stalks should be removed. This is a really easy way to elevate your cuisine with an authentic taste!
Shallot – a blend of garlic and onion – adds depth and flavour to countless dishes. Shallots are delicate with a noticeably sweeter flavour, but they can also be used to replace onions if needed. They are cooked similarly to onions and often start recipes off. They can also be fried and used to top meals. Due to their milder nature, there is less risk of overpowering your food with onion flavour when using shallots.
Cilantro… you love it or you hate it, and either way is okay. Some folks will taste soap when they have it, but many just get those bright citrusy notes instead. It has a really fresh flavour that suits so many meals, especially those with a little spice. It is the perfect accompaniment to countless dishes and a handful to garnish your favourite meals is a must-have if you enjoy it. If you cook a lot of Asian meals – especially Indian food – you likely always have some handy. Plus, this one is super easy to grow in a container. Also, it’s rich in vitamin K. Both fresh cilantro and dried cilantro (often called coriander) can readily be found in most stores.
Vietnamese mint differs from regular mint because its flavour has more of a peppery bite. In fact, it’s not even related to mint. It’s actually more often compared to coriander. The reason it’s referred to as mint is due to its appearance and its scent. It can be used interchangeably with both herbs.
Thai basil is a fairly common herb used in Thai food as the name suggests. If you’ve eaten a good amount of Thai cuisine, you probably know this variety of basil. It’s also easily found in Asian markets. One of the major distinctions to set it apart from regular basil are the purple stems. In terms of flavour, it’s got a bold edge with a little spice. Moreover, it smells a bit like anise. It cooks better than its Italian cousin so you can easily toss it into warm dishes like soup, stir-fry, and curry. You may have also had it as a garnish with pho or in salads.
Scallions or spring onions – not to be confused with shallots – are a common ingredient inside and outside of Asian cuisine. Some people may confuse them with shallots just due to the name and the types of recipes used to make them though they don’t look similar. Scallions are long, green, and easy to grow at home from the bulbs in a glass of water (pro tip!).
Scallions and spring onions have minor differences. Scallions have a milder flavour, especially when eaten raw. If you plan to garnish food with raw slices, scallions are the better choice. Spring onions have a more potent flavour profile. You can tell the difference because spring onions have a larger, onion-shaped bulb. Scallions have a narrow, white bulb on the end.
These chives are sometimes referred to as Chinese leeks or garlic chives. When it comes to flavour, these greens taste more like garlic than chives. Asian chives are used for culinary purposes all over Asia from China to Kazakhstan to Korea where you might find it in kimchi. They are also known for their beautiful white flowers so they also possess decorative value.
Kaffir lime leaf
Kaffir limes look similar to regular limes in shape and size, but you can tell them apart because the texture of the kaffir lime is bumpy. Moreover, their leaves are used as the edible part of the plant. The lime itself is very bitter and its components are used instead for cleaning products or essential oils. The leaves are like the Thai equivalent of bay leaves bringing a fragrant citrus flavour to any dish.
And there you have it… the ultimate guide to Asian greens, veggies, aromatics, and more. Asian cuisine contains so many variations. Each country has its own distinct and unique recipes including variations of these classic ingredients. No matter where you travel to or which cuisines you dabble in cooking yourself, you will find many of the same flavours in new combinations from dish to dish.
These ingredients bring an entirely new depth to cooking and learning more about what they are, where to find them, and how to use them will elevate your home cooking exponentially.