10 Vegetables China Taught Me to Love

16 Jun 2009

I’ve always been good about eating my vegetables, but coming to China was a total game-changer for me, vegetable-wise. Here were veggies I’d long since written off as “nasty,” forcing me to reevaluate them in their new oriental guise. And reevaluate I did! In the end, I found myself growing to love the Chinese version of many of the vegetables I thought I didn’t like. (It’s probably more than just the effect of MSG.)

Of course, then there are also the ones I’d never heard of or seen before coming to China. One of them even made it all the way to #1 on my list. Definitely noteworthy!

The pictures below all come from Flickr, and each photo was taken by someone other than me. Please click through to see the photo on Flickr, and comment there if you would like to praise the photographers. Anyway, in reverse order, here are the top ten vegetables China taught me to love:

10. Cauliflower (花菜)

This one was always disgusting to me in the US, unless it was drowned in cheese. Good old Chinese MSG and spices seems to take care of the issue, though!

9. Leeks (大葱)

These are usually best cooked in other dishes, and go great with meat, especially. They’re pretty tasty by themselves when cooked, too.

8. Beansprouts (豆芽)

This one seems relegated to “health food nut” status in many parts of the USA, but in China it’s appreciated by the common man, in a wide range of dishes.

7. Pea Sprouts (豆苗)

I never had these in the States, but I can’t get enough in China. They just taste so fresh and delicious!

6. (Golden) Needle / Enoki Mushroom (金针菇)

I suspect the “wrapped in meat” trick probably comes from Japan, but you see this spunky fungus in all kinds of tasty Chinese dishes.

5. Lettuce (生菜)

OK, so I always liked lettuce (iceberg, romaine, whatever), but what China taught me is that, far from being exclusively a salad staple or hamburger topping, you can cook lettuce and it’s still good, which blew my poor, sheltered western mind at first. The dish which opened my eyes was 蚝油生菜 (lettuce in oyster sauce, below, large).

4. Dragon Beans (龙豆)

These are not terribly well-known, even in China. I couldn’t find a photo on Flickr, so I had to find one myself. I love to order 蒜泥龙豆 at 鹿港小镇 (AKA “Bellagio“) in Shanghai, which is where I first discovered the vegetable. I once had a waitress bring out a whole “dragon bean” so I could see what they look like; I can confirm that they look like this, and are quite large.

龙豆 (longdou)

3. Bamboo Shoots ()

There are tons of different kinds of tasty bamboo shoots (in Chinese, even asparagus, or 芦笋, counts as one), but I’m not going to get into them all. Suffice it to say that they’re pretty much all awesome.

2. Eggplant (茄子)

I was never a fan of eggplant back in the States (even eggplant parmigiana), and I realized in China that it’s because of the texture the seeds give the eggplant. Then in Hangzhou I was introduced to the virtually seedless southern Chinese eggplant, and my love affair with eggplant began (in northern China the other inferior kind still dominates). I am repeatedly stunned by how amazing a good eggplant dish can be, usually served up in a spicy, salty sauce.

1. Celtuce (莴笋)

I had never seen this vegetable before, let alone heard its funky English name (“celtuce“?? really??). But I just love this stuff. Chopped or shredded, cold or hot, spicy or not, it’s just total crunchy goodness. (And the weird thing is, I think it tastes a little bit like Doritos somehow.)




I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and that it inspires you to try a few of these vegetables in China. I’m dedicating this post to Matt, my “food pornographer” friend. The photos took such a ridiculously long time to do that I’m definitely not doing this again!

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Jon-
    I am impressed (and not surprised) by the list. I was somewhat of a born again vegetable eater in China as well. One area for me which China turned me on is leafy greens. 大白菜,小白菜,花瓶菜,上海菜, 油菜, to name a few. I probably can think of more names for leafy greens in Chinese than I can in English, mainly because I don’t usually eat them outside of China, and the naming conventions in China are usually quite fluid and change by region. Great post though. I definitely eat more veggies post-China than I ever did before.

  2. Awesome post.
    But dude, really, lettuce and spinach have been ruined for me in China, at least the way they’re commonly cooked in Shanghai: dripping, even oozing with oil. Celtuce (thank you for that!, I’ve seen it in dictionaries, confusingly, as ‘lettuce’), needle mushrooms and bamboo are the goods here. Mushrooms in general are fantastic in China. I think eggplant is better done in the Middle East and bean sprouts are best in Vietnamese dishes, but I have to agree that China has so many different kinds of vegetables at such low prices I can’t help but enjoy. Just wish the Chinese could get over their fear of eating them raw – that’s where the nutrition is.

    • The reason why Chinese in general do not eat their vegetables raw is the soil. I have read older Chinese cookbooks and they all said the soil was poor and raw vegetables were considered “dirty”. Many had gotten ill from eating raw vegs so they stir fry to remove whatever that made them sick.

  3. Matt in CQ Says: June 16, 2009 at 11:13 am

    What, no 空心菜 love?? Cooked 炝 style, with some garlic and salt, it tastes like the greens are bathed in butter. Or do you guys not get that in Shanghai?

    And for 莴笋, if you order that in Sichuan, you get this:
    http://files.bettyskitchen.com.cn/bbs/files/thumbs/t__3_174.jpg
    To get the dish in your picture, you have to specify the stem, which when cooked in a dish here, goes by an odd name that I’m having trouble recalling right now, but something like 凤尾??? Any help from others in Sichuan???

  4. I’m still working on liking those needle mushrooms. The texture is all wrong, especially when they get stuck in my teeth.

    Bitter melon (苦瓜) is another vegetable I’ve still got a lot to learn about how to love. I owe that vegetable a second try but I’ve avoided the opportunity so far.

  5. Personally, spinach would be on my equivalent top 10 list: fry lots of chopped up garlic for about 30 seconds in some oil, throw some salt onto the now hot oil, then throw in the washed garlic, stir-fry together for no more than 2 minutes, so the spinach is still tender. An amazingly delicious, healthy and cheap dish, costing no more than 2 RMB for two people.

  6. Ahh beansprouts in a spicy hot pot broth, one of my favorite things in the world, all with an ice cold beer of course…. damn, gotta be hotpot for dinner now!

  7. Ohhh and bbq’d eggplant off the street vendor, also amazing, who knew vegetables could be soo good after growing up with steamed cauliflower and lima beans.

  8. What a great post. Have to agree on all but the dragon beans – I’m still getting used to them. Now, if only they’d cook them all in just a little less oil….

  9. If you’d said bitter gourd, I’d have been disappointed.

  10. Hi John,

    A good post. China is a cornucopia of vegetable goodness. I’ve rarely met a vegetable in China I didn’s like, usually because they are always prepared in such a tasty fashion. I’ve gotten used to eating mystery vegetables, but this post is a good inspiration to learn a bit more about the names and cooking styles, maybe when I get back home I can prepare an interesting meal for friends with half a dozen veggies they’ve never heard of before.

    The most common veggie dish seems to be good old 白菜, which I don’t mind but whose texture I find takes some getting used to. On the other hand, I miss western brocolli the most, I can get it sometimes but it’s not that popular with Chinese friends. Even so, every day is a delight.

  11. Echoing Feds, awesome post. Spinach would be on my list as well; I never thought of spinach as sweet until I came here and ate it with the stem still attached, especially when its fresh and pink. Otherwise, I’m surprised with how much we agree, especially the top three.

  12. Love love love cooked lettuce. I am in the states for a little vacation and convinced my doubting sister to throw some leftover lettuce into her generic stir-fry. She’s a believer.
    And I don’t know if it is specifically a southern dish because I haven’t seen it too much since I moved to Beijing, but I adore the garlic greens. I don’t even know what they are properly called because my friends would call them by some Sichuanhua name. They are a little sweet and garlicy and just so amazing even when cooked simply in a little oil or with fried (scrambled) eggs

  13. Great idea! Next up TOP TEN meats you enjoy in CHINA! I’m totally with you on the GOLDEN NEEDLE mushrooms… those in HOTPOT make me happy.

    Also eggplant is something I always bring up to my friends at home. I couldn’t stand it in America…but can’t get enough of it in China!

    Never heard of Cleluce or Lettelery… you making that up?

  14. Was this all just a post to get us talking about how to properly translate 青菜 or have you covered that before?

  15. Matt in CQ Says: June 16, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    If you have to make due with those northern eggplants (I know them as Italian eggplants), make sure you salt them after chopping, and before cooking. It draws out the moisture and bitter flavor. More info:
    http://www.cookthink.com/reference/19/Do_I_need_to_salt_eggplant_before_cooking_it

  16. China taught me to hate “bitter melon” (苦瓜). I note that it’s NOT on your list.

  17. Good list. I’ve come to love most of these vegetables too since being in China the last 5 years. I was equally as astounded that you could cook lettuce. I’d add tofu in its various forms to the list too, although is tofu considered a vegetable?? I guess it would be.

    I LOVE it that you say that 莴笋 (which does have a funky English name by the way, I’ve never known what the translation was) taste like Doritos. The first time my friends and I ate it, we all called it the “Taco-bell vegetable” because we thought it tasted like corn chips or tortillas!!!

  18. The one that surprised me was celery. I couldn’t bear the stuff back in the UK. Here, it’s damn good! I even buy it in the market.

    I even like bitter melon (苦瓜)!

  19. Oooh, I agree. I never even had eggplant in the US because every time my Dad saw it in the supermarket he would begin ranting about “nasssty purple gooey horrible….” and so on. It’s one of my absolute favorites here. I’m also a big fan of broccoli, spinach, and 空心菜. Here in Hainan I was told that your dragon bean is called 四角豆. We also have a lot of good, local veggies. My favorite is 五指山菜, grown on 五指山, presumably.

  20. Great post! The Chinese diet used to be almost entirely vegetarian, because you can get a lot more veggies than meat out of a mu of land.

    All energy comes from the sun, and we lose most of it with each step up the food chain. So you get a lot more if you eat from the bottom. For myself, a meal isn’t complete without 蚕豆, in my book.

  21. First, I like to thank John for his effort in locating such a wide selection of #foodporn. It mustn’t have been easy. Since it was a surprise dedication, I guess you couldn’t come to me for even BETTER food porn. I must say, John, I am touched.

    I second Liuzhou Laowai, I hated celery in Australia, dig it here in China. It’s all in the cooking method.

    Nice post John.

  22. Wow, thanks for all the replies everyone! I haven’t written a really “comment-provoking” post in a while, and I wouldn’t have imagined that food was the magic topic.

    Before I say anything else, though, I must tell David on Formosa that his astute observation is dead-on: I have no love for “bitter melon” (苦瓜).

  23. Also, to some of the other commenters… spinach and cabbage were on my list, but just didn’t make the top ten. (Yes, I originally actually had an even longer list, which I narrowed down. Pumpkin was also on that list!)

  24. People get to like different things here. I love the big 猪肚菇 mushrooms and the 椿芽 (cedar sprouts) in springtime.

    I have friends who have fallen in love with lotus root (藕) but I can take it or leave it.

  25. To add to the lettuce knowledge, I’ve recently found out that lettuce (romaine especially) actually works really well when you bake it too (picture it as a pizza topping or something in a wrap). It gets crispy on the tips and has a nice texture.
    I’ve had pea sprouts here in Canada, but they really are hard to fine outside of ethnic stores I think. They are delicious for sure

  26. Anybody else like 百合 (bai3he2)? I think they’re dried lily bulbs, so I guess that makes them not vegetables, but still delicious!

    If you aren’t sure if you’ve tried them, they are pure white and about the size of large almonds. They’re composed of thick layers, and you might see them in stir-fried dishes already separated into “petals”. The texture is a little like water chestnut + potato, and the taste is vaguely sweet.

    I think that’s it shown alongside 莴笋 in photo #1, but, in case I’m wrong, here’s another link:
    http://image.caiuu.com/menu/2008/04/17/m_20080417021751128.jpg
    and, again, in it’s bulbous form:
    http://www.nykjzf.com/tupianweijianjia01/20058209853399.jpg

  27. “耗油生菜” ? 耗子?
    应该是“蚝油”。

  28. Only in China a couple of weeks but I did like the dragon beans. Here in the US, grilling is becoming THE way to cook, it seems. Elaborate grills are actually portable kitchen stoves of late.

    Braised lettuce is recommended. Other vegetable can be grilled too. I have had grilled asparagus and just the other night I grilled some yellow squash & celery.

    Something I like but rarely get is celery root. The last time that I rwmwmbwe having it was in Lourdes in 1989 (I think it was).

  29. absolutely unrelated / off topic / silly:
    congrats on the double eight in China

  30. cathy,

    Oops, you’re right. Fixed!

  31. Isn’t the real reason these are all good because they’re usually swimming in sesame oil and/or soy sauce? It seems like so many veggie dishes have the same general taste. I do agree about the Chinese eggplant dish although I can cook it up good in an American style too. Another excellent Chinese veggie dish is snow peas stir fry!

  32. John,

    Try thinly sliced 苦瓜 (bitter melon) dipped in honey. First had it at 衡山小官. You’ll love it.

  33. Here in Yunnan, especially at 傣族 restaurants, they do wonderful things with 薄荷 (mint). My favorite is a mint/tomato stirfry. In addition, Yunnan folk love their crispy mint-fried red beans which I believe are native to the province

  34. I cannot undertstand how anyone would like wilted lettuce drowned in sauce.

    And it’s nice being away from the cultural connotations of beansprouts – I’d like to eat something without associating myself with the nutjobs who hijacked the idea of this vegetable.

    Eggplants are so tiny here. Celery too.

  35. Jesse Malone Says: June 17, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    How can you not have 山药 or 冬瓜 on this list? Freakin’ laowai…

  36. Great article!

    My favourite “exotic Chinese vegetable” is probably lotus root (it even looks exotic when sliced up, with round holes in it like swiss cheese). Tasty when fried with vinegar, and also nice stewed. Incidently, the invisible fibres which inspired the metaphor “藕断丝连” seem to be undetectable when it is cut cross-ways, but very noticeable when cut into longer pieces.

    In the North, fresh bamboo shoots are not all that common, and quite seasonal. They are known as 竹笋. The celtuce seems to be available almost year-round, however, and is simply called 笋子.

    By the way, I’m not sure if I would translate 大葱 as leek, since that’s quite a different vegetable in my mind. Leek is Allium porrum, and as far as I know not available in China. 大葱 is Allium fistulosum, a kind of scallion or green onion. According to Wikipedia, it is most accurately called Welsh Onion, although I’ve certainly never heard this name before.

  37. heilong79 Says: June 18, 2009 at 4:30 am

    Best vegtable ever is Bai Cai, it goes with any dish and is great in huo guo too.

  38. Those are some good ones. I’ve never seen dragon beans before, and I’m not sure if I’ve had the pea sprouts (who knows what I ate in China). The celtuce sounds weird, but it looks familiar–I probably mistook it for some other vegetable. Cauliflower is one that I enjoy more at home (my mom has a great way of baking it with bread crumbs and parmesan).

  39. Everything there looks delicious and I can’t agree more about experiencing new foods with different flavors is a great way to learn to love some foods.

  40. elpollorico Says: June 18, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    What about 韭菜?

  41. lavarock Says: June 19, 2009 at 1:25 am

    Oh, come on John, you live in Shanghai and no love for Shanghai cabbage? that’s gonna be the most popular cabbage in Shanghai!

  42. lavarock,

    No, I like cabbage. But I never really disliked it before coming to China, and it’s not so different that I consider it a whole new vegetable.

  43. lavarock Says: June 20, 2009 at 12:28 am

    They don’t sell Shanghai style bok choy in U.S supermarket though (they do sell them in farmer’s market, but so is many of the vegetables on your list).

    A great list! For me, I love chives (the green and especially the yellow one, but that kind is usually a lot more expensive). So I would put chives on that list.

  44. Mike Fish Says: June 20, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Doesn’t 笋 just mean shoot, not bamboo shoot? I’ve never felt it implied that any of the other 笋 are related or connected with bamboo.

  45. Mel Drake Says: June 21, 2009 at 5:29 am

    鱼香茄子 is probably my favorite dish of all time. I still buy it for myself as a treat occasionally, a big cheap helping with rice, and it confuses people when I say eggplant is my favorite food (but yes, the small, seedless Chinese sort)

  46. One vegetable that is a must: TARO ROOT!!! That purple sweet potato is poppin’ up at Whole Foods in forms of chips and ice cream. It was one of the best and rarest seasonal treats in Hangzhou to find taro root fried. Crunchy delicate salt n peppered outside, soft and sweet inside. Ooooh.

  47. I just happened to stop by after a long absence. Food porn is always a hit.

    In transitioning from Korea to China, I was delighted by the tremendous variety of produce but lost weight the first month because I couldn’t stomach the oily sauces.

    America, too, has an amazing abundance of produce, even more variety than in China owing to our greater ethnic diversity and growing interest in reviving heirloom species. The problem is that many Americans do know or won’t take the time to use the right combination of oils, vinegars, and spices to enhance the flavors of vegetables. Almost any vegetable can be rendered into a delicious side dish with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a dash of salt and pepper.

  48. Of course food is the magic topic!! It’s universal. 🙂 I’m going to have to give 苦瓜 (bitter melon) a little bit of love after the hate-fest though. I admit I generally can’t stand the stuff, but I’ve found that in China there are certain ways of prepping it that actually make it palatable. Sliced paper thin and fried in eggs is actually quite good, or stir fried with cured bacon. The key is slicing it really thin. I find it ironic that Westerners with their intense love of bitter coffee can’t stomach a little bitter in their food. 🙂

  49. I wish, these vegetables are grown in my city also. I lived in Guangzhou, and yes, so many veggie stuff there too. all so tasty

  50. Sorry to be a bit of a party pooper, but it’d be best to wash your Chinese grown vegetables very carefully, the amount of pesticides and other funky chemicals that are used to grow them are astounding…I use vegetable wash purchased from abroad just to make sure I get as most of the chemicals off as possible..

    For more info check out this article: http://www.chinaretailnews.com/2009/04/28/2597-greenpeace-says-chinese-vegatables-tainted-with-pesicides/

  51. Wikipedia entry on ‘dragon beans’:

    The Winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), also known as the Goa bean (kacang botol in Malaysia) and Asparagus Pea and Winged Pea (Lotus tetragonolobus), is a tropical legume plant native to Papua New Guinea. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winged_bean

  52. Thanks for listing the types of Vegetables. I’ve always been curious about Chinese food in general. Do you find that the lettuce dishes can be too oily?

  53. Are you familiar with the leafy vegetable called “tow meyeow”? Could you explain this one if you know it?
    thanks

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