If you’ve ever eaten with a Chinese or Vietnamese family, you’ll know how important a balanced dinner spread is. No dinner spread is complete without a side dish of tasty Asian vegetables.
I know that there may be some Asian vegetables that not everyone is familiar with, so stay with me while I take you through the ones we use at home!
These are the star ingredients that we use in our soups, stir fries and braises. They’re used for a range of purposes, from adding texture to natural sweetness to a nutty creaminess.
Not everyone loves this ingredient, but it’s definitely a taste that can be acquired. Children are often forced to have it for its health benefits, but develop a love for it as they grow older.
- Alternative names: Bitter Gourd (English), 涼瓜 Loeng Gwaa (Cantonese), 苦瓜 Kǔguā (Mandarin), Khổ Qua (Vietnamese).
- Taste: Bitter and mildly sweet with the snappy texture of a crisp apple.
- Culinary Use: While inherently bitter, bittermelon is popularly used in stir fries and soups. Our favorite way to make an easy weeknight dinner is to make it as part of an omelette!
- Find me in: Stuffed Bittermelon Soup (Canh Khổ Qua)
As a child, I often got kabocha squash confused with the pumpkin you would typically see made into a thick soup. It’s actually sweeter and firmer than the type many are used to, making it a great choice for cooking over high heat over longer periods of time.
- Alternative names: Japanese Pumpkin (English), 南瓜 naam gwaa (Cantonese), Bí (Vietnamese).
- Taste: Buttery and sweet, resembling a mixture of sweet potato and pumpkin.
- Culinary Use: Can be cut into thin pieces and stir fried, or left in chunks to be steamed or cooked in soups.
- Find me in: Vietnamese Kabocha Squash Soup (Canh Bí Đỏ Thịt Bằm).
Jicama is one of those unsung heroes that works wonders in Asian cuisine. It isn’t normally the star of the dish, but plays an important role in making the overall meal balanced with a natural sweetness that is mild and tasty.
- Alternative names: 沙葛 (Cantonese), Cây Củ đậu (Vietnamese).
- Taste: Sweet, similar to that of apple or nashi.
- Culinary Use: Jicama is usually added to recipes for a extra sweetness.
- Find me in: Chả Giò Chay (Vegetarian Spring Rolls), Xíu Mại (Vietnamese Meatballs in Tomato Sauce), Bánh Canh Cua (Crab Tapioca Noodle Soup), Bò Bía (Rice Paper Rolls with Chinese Sausage and Eggs)
As a child, lotus root was such a peculiar vegetable to me. I found it really odd that after I bit into it, there would be this delicate web-like strand that would connect the bitten and unbitten parts together. But now that I’m older, I can easily disregard it and enjoy it for its flavor.
- Alternative names: 蓮藕 Lin Ngau (Cantonese), Ngó Sen (Vietnamese).
- Taste: Sweet and slightly nutty with the texture similar to potato.
- Culinary Use: Lotus root is generally sliced and used as part of a soup, deep fried into chips or stuffed as you would tofu.
- Find me in: Lotus Root and Pork Soup (蓮藕汤)
Daikon a.k.a. white radish
Daikon is an ingredient that is similar to jicama. It’s often used to make the dish sweeter without the need for extra sugar. The only difference is that it has a nice soft texture after being cooked so it’s quite tasty.
- Alternative names: 大根 (Chinese).
- Taste: Sweet with a firm yet flexible texture.
- Culinary Use:
- Find me in: Curry Fish Balls (咖喱魚蛋), Bò Kho (Vietnamese Beef Stew), Braised Beef Honeycomb Tripe, Bún Riêu Chay (Vegetarian Tomato Noodle Soup)
Okra might seem a little odd at first with its slimy texture, but once you get past that, you’ll find that it’s really enjoyable to eat. If it’s cooked in sauces or as part of a soup, it will take on some of its flavor as well.
- Alternative names: 秋葵 Cau Kwai (Cantonese) Đậu Bắp (Vietnamese)
- Taste: Mildly grassy and sweet. It also has a slimy texture when cooked.
- Culinary Use: Okra is great steamed on its own, stir fried or added to soups.
- Find me in: Vietnamese Sour Soup (Canh Chua)
There’s just something special about taro because it’s so beautifully fragrant. Mum would often tell me to add more to give the dish a nuttier aroma that carries through with every bite.
- Alternative names: 芋頭 Wu Tau (Cantonese) Khoai Môn (Vietnamese)
- Taste: Creamy and nutty.
- Culinary Use: Taro can be steamed and mashed with flour or cut into chunks to be slow cooked in desserts or soups.
- Find me in: Cà Ri Gà (Vietnamese Chicken Curry), Cà Ri Chay (Vegetarian Vietnamese Curry), Sago Soup With Taro (西米露), Taro and Sweet Potato Balls Dessert (九份芋圓)
Purple yam is the type of Asian vegetable that often gets confused with other similar vegetables. It has a similar appearance to taro and even to the Japanese Okinawan sweet potato, but is very different in texture and taste.
- Alternative names: Khoai Môn (Vietnamese), Ube (Filipino).
- Taste: Similar to potato but with a nutty and slimy texture.
- Culinary Use: Purple yam is popular in Filipino cuisine as part of desserts and jams. For Vietnamese people, the root vegetable is scraped for its flesh and cooked into a soup.
- Find me in: Canh Khoai Mỡ (Creamy Purple Yam Soup)
Elephant ear plant
Elephant eat plant might be the one of the most odd-sounding names you’ve come across, but let me tell you that the stalk is everything but. These plants act like sponges and soak up every drop of seasoning in the broth that it’s cooked it. Delish!
- Alternative names: Bạc Hà (Vietnamese).
- Taste: Mildly grassy but mostly takes on the flavor of what it’s cooked in.
- Culinary Use: In Vietnamese cuisine, its signature combo is with the tamarind-based sour soup (Canh Chua).
- Find me in: Vietnamese Sour Soup (Canh Chua).
This wildly popular Asian leafy green is most commonly seen in yum cha restaurants served on rolling carts alongside traditional dim sum. It has a texture that compliments many dishes because once cooked, it still stays crunchy.
- Alternative names: 芥兰 Gai Lan (Cantonese), Cai Rô (Vietnamese).
- Taste: Similar to broccoli but with a slight bitterness.
- Culinary Use: It’s typically used in stir fries but can also be boiled or steamed.
- Find me in: Rice Cooker Rice with Mushrooms and Chinese Broccoli, Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce (蠔油芥籣), Tom Yum Fried Rice.
Chinese cabbage might be my favorite Asian vegetable of all time. It’s sweetness lends itself to so many cooking styles that you’ll never get bored of it. This is not to be mistaken for regular cabbage though! The Chinese version is much sweeter and more tender.
- Alternative names: Wombok (English), Napa Cabbage (English), 紹菜 Siu Choy (Cantonese).
- Taste: Mildly sweet, similar to cabbage.
- Culinary Use: Chinese cabbage can soften rather quickly, so is cooked over high heat in stir fries for short periods of time to retain the crunch or left to soften in soups.
- Find me in: Chinese Cabbage Soup (紹菜汤), Mushroom and Chinese Cabbage Soup.
Whenever I see chrysanthemum greens, I have vivid memories of gathering around the family dinner table and enjoying a delicious round of hot pot. It’s one of those greens that holds well when stir fried or boiled.
- Alternative names: 茼蒿 (Cantonese), Tần Ô (Vietnamese).
- Taste: Sweet and mildly grassy. The stems can retain their crunchy firmness for long periods of time when cooked.
- Culinary Use: Chrysanthemum greens are a popular choice as a cooked topping for noodle soups and hot pot.
- Find me in: Hủ Tiếu Nam Vang (Vietnamese Pork and Prawn Clear Noodle Soup), Vịt Nấu Chao (Vietnamese Duck and Fermented Bean Curd Hot Pot).
I remember the first time Dad told me the name of this plant in Cantonese, and it literally translated to ‘a chipped large bowl’. If you look closely at the leaf, it sure does look like that!
- Alternative names: 崩大碗 Bung Dai Woon (Cantonese), Rau Má (Vietnamese).
- Taste: Bitter and mildly sweet with a hint of pepper.
- Culinary Use: Blended into a drink or cooked in a soup.
- Find me in: Pennywort Drink (Nước Rau Má).
Snow pea shoots
These delicate shoots are an Asian vegetable that comes from pea plants. They’re best grown in the colder seasons but can be grown at home on the windowsill. Waiters will likely recommended it as part of a vege stir fry at Cantonese restaurants when they’re in season!
- Alternative names: 荷蘭豆 Ho Laan Dau (Cantonese).
- Taste: Sweet, similar to sugar snap peas.
- Culinary Use: Snow pea shoots can be cooked over high heat in stir fries or added to the popular Chinese street food malatang.
- Find me in: Stir Fried Pea Shoots with Garlic.
All across Southeast Asia, water spinach is one of the most recognized Asian vegetables. You’ll typically find it growing in moist soil or in water. The most unique feature about the greens is that the stems are hollow!
- Alternative names: 通菜 Ong Choy (Cantonese), Rau muống (Vietnamese)
- Taste: Sweet and slightly peppery with a great crunchy texture.
- Culinary Use: Water spinach is a popular ingredient used in vegetable stir fries across Southeast Asia. It retains its crunch when cooked for short periods of time and the leaves absorb all sauce flavor. It’s also a great candidate for cooking in soups.
- Find me in: Stir Fried Water Spinach with Fermented Bean Curd (炒腐乳空心菜), Stir Fried Water Spinach with Shrimp Paste, Vịt Nấu Chao (Vietnamese Duck and Fermented Bean Curd Hot Pot)
These vibrant watercress plants are my entire childhood. When simmered in a liquid, they become a deep dark green and add tons of nutrients to Grandma’s soups. When young, they’ll be much more tender and make the perfect companion for Summer salads.
- Alternative names: 西洋菜 Say Yeung Choy (Cantonese), Xà lách Son (Vietnamese).
- Taste: Mildly peppery and sweet, similar to rocket.
- Culinary Use: When young, watercress is quite tender with a gently crunch perfect for salads. It’s also used in soups where it soaks in the seasoning flavor.
- Find me in: Chinese Watercress Soup (西洋菜汤), Vietnamese Beef Salad (Bò Xào Xà Lách Xoong)
With all of our favorite Asian vegetables and leafy greens right here, I hope you get to find some at your local grocer and cook them for your family this week with some fragrant aromatics.
I’ll make sure to continually update the information on this page as I learn about more!