The world of Asian vegetables can seem a little intimidating if you didn't grow up with them. But they have such a variety, uniqueness and taste that it is worth studying them quickly! Some even have supposed medicinal properties.
Asian vegetables can be difficult to find outside of their countries of origin, and not all cities have stores that specialize in importing exotic vegetables. Growing in your own garden can often be your best bet, and not just for finding that particular vegetable called for in a recipe.
Growing Japanese eggplants, lotus roots, or taro roots in the back yard can really add flavor to your homemade cooking! From the mild taste of Napa cabbage and Gai-Lan to the delicious bite of bitter melon, Asian vegetables open up a whole new world of cuisine.
Here's a cheat sheet for people who want a good look at some of what's out there!
Bitter melon is a strange looking fruit. Source: sogni_hal
Bitter melon or Momordica charantia, also known as balsam pear, belongs to the cucurbit family and is an incredibly bitter vegetable. Although it is shaped like a cucumber, it has a strikingly bubbly and shiny surface. As a vine, it often needs a very sturdy trellis to support the weight of all the fruit it produces.
Since they increase in bitterness with age, they are usually harvested young and pickled, stuffed, or fried with sauce in a pan. While it is particularly common in Okinawan cuisine, it can also be found in Chinese, Thai, and Filipino cuisines.
The loofah pumpkin can be eaten young and unripe. Source: Rigid
Epic Gardening's legendary Luffa Grow Challenge highlighted this incredible plant, Luffa aegyptiaca and Luffa acutangula. But did you also know that it is a vegetable and is eaten at a young age? It's just the bigger, ripe, and dried loofahs that are used to clean your dirty legs after gardening! The younger and immature version of this plant is regularly eaten instead of pumpkin or in stews.
Almost all parts of the winged bean plant are edible. Source: Hafiz Issadeen
The winged bean or Psophocarpus tetragonolobus, sometimes also referred to as the princess bean or goa bean, has a similar growth pattern to normal runner beans, but the plant itself is very unique in appearance. The winged bean looks like a 4-sided or winged cucumber and is a very traditional Chinese vegetable. Like other beans, it is high in protein and adds nitrogen to the soil – the nutrient that is most often lacking in vegetable gardens!
The firm texture of yardlong beans makes them a favorite. Source: gtrwndr87
A member of the bean family Vigna unguiculata ssp. Sesquipedalis or yard beans not only feed you, they also feed the garden! This nitrogen-fixing plant will store nutrients in the soil around it as it expels its eponymous bean crop nearly up to a meter in length! Because of their long, thread-like appearance, they are sometimes called asparagus beans.
Although common in many Asian countries, yardlong beans are a bit more crispy than western beans and are very commonly used in stir-fries.
Bottle gourds are both edible and decorative. Source: pennstatenews
Bottle gourds or Langenaria siceraria come from the gourd family and, like many of their cousins, climb up a trellis and produce a multitude of double-curved gourds. With a mild taste similar to summer squash or cucumber, they are generally fried or eaten in a curry.
They are usually harvested at a young and immature stage when they are eaten. If left on the vine, they will harden and eventually can be hollowed out to build birdhouses or other projects.
Sweet snap peas are used in many dishes. Source: Ruth and Dave
Sweet peas, or Pisum sativum var. Macrocarpon, is a fast-growing vine that twists and turns in the garden. The snow pea itself is a 3-5 inch long light green pod that peas grow in. Unlike many other types of peas, sugar peas are eaten whole – pod and everything and are a great crispy and sweet addition to any stir-fry dish.
Find out more: Snow peas
A young winged yam that is taking root. Source: Rigid
Winged yam or Dioscorea alata is actually a "real yam". Unlike American sweet potatoes, which are often incorrectly referred to as "yams", this plant is also known as "Ube" in Filipino cuisine. It's popular in desserts, has a naturally sweet taste, and comes in a variety of colors – although the light purple zambales are a very popular variety.
It is eaten in rice cakes or ube jam, among other things. This plant is native to the Philippines and Indonesia but has been eaten for thousands of years. It supposedly has medicinal uses for hemorrhoids and fevers.
Learn more: Winged Yam
Lentils are legumes that are used as a thickener or whole. Source: mschmidt62
Lentils, or lens culinaris, are traditional and protein-rich small beans from the legume family. Tiny little protein factories, you have to eat some of them in soups, stews, or salads to get enough protein. But their delicious taste in dishes like Tarka Dhal has made them a very popular food in Indian cuisine. Its taste is mild and nutty, and mixes easily with any spices that are added to it. The lentils grow on short vinous plants and grow in pods.
Learn more: Lenses L.
Daikon has a mild, light radish taste. Source: timtak
Daikon radishes are the mild version of the western radish. The daikon radish grows in a range of colors from milky white to red to watermelon patterns and is most commonly pickled to add delicious accents and side dishes. It is the enlarged tap root of daikon radishes that is commonly eaten. The Japanese daikon radish, a large white vegetable, is particularly famous.
Learn more: Daikon radish
Chinese celery is slowly gaining popularity in the US. Source: kattebelletje
Chinese celery may seem a little strange to many people who are unfamiliar with Chinese food. It has a more pronounced taste than western celery and can easily be mistaken for an herb. Not only is it good for digestion, it's also much smaller than western celery. The thin stems and leaves of the plant are also eaten. The varieties range in color from white to dark green.
Broccoli raven is a lovely green vegetable. Source: fritish
A delicious and hearty green, broccoli raven, or Brassica oleracea var. Alboglabra, is common all over the world. In appearance, it is Gai Lan's cousin, with its thick stems and broad leaves. However, broccoli rabe has a puckered leaf and a taste that is slightly more similar to broccoli, although not related.
Similar to Chinese broccoli and during the cold season, it becomes bitter when consumed and becomes bitter as soon as temperatures rise.
Bok choy is a favorite in stir fry dishes. Source: stu_spivack
Bok Choy or Brassica rapa var. Chinensis come in many different varieties. This green leafy vegetable is one of the most famous Chinese vegetables outside of China. Bok Choi, a type of Chinese cabbage, grows more like a small head of lettuce. The stems are firm with a delicate green and can range in color from bright white to pale green or even be harvested as small as Baby Pak Choi.
Different species are grown to make different styles of cooking. Bok Choy is loved around the world for stir-fry dishes with tofu or meat and steamed vegetable dishes. This is one of the most common vegetables you can find in the Asian markets!
Learn more: Bok Choy
Napa cabbage is like a mix of cabbage and bok choi. Source: Seacoast Eat Local
Napa cabbage or Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis is one of the most common Chinese vegetables in western supermarkets. A cabbage with more tender leaves than western cabbage, it is cut into thin slices and cooked with soy sauce, pickled with kimchi or even eaten raw in salads.
This very versatile feed from the cruciferous family is one of the first plants to hit the market in spring, but it can take a few months to fully mature. However, the taste of this cabbage is what makes it so coveted.
This variety of Chinese cabbage can get a lot bigger than a western cabbage – it can take up an entire vegetable drawer in the refrigerator! There are also a number of varieties that make Napa cabbage unique, such as the Red Dragon Chinese Cabbage or the Red Dragon Hybrid Chinese Cabbage.
Learn more: Napa Kohl
Mizuna can be eaten raw or cooked. Source: Farmer_Jay
Mizuna Greens, sometimes also called spider mustard, are a peppery salad green similar to mustard green and not for the faint of heart! These vegetables are one of the most nutritious vegetables in the world. While the mizuna green can be eaten in stir-fry dishes, it is often served raw or even pickled for long-term storage.
This cool season crop has a flavor that gets stronger as it ages. Mizuna come in a variety of colors and shapes, but they all have a distinctive thin or prickly leaf that grows in a hilly rosette shape. The color of the leaves ranges from pale green to a striking dark purple that contains anthocyanins. Spider mustard is a prolific producer, grown in early spring before many other vegetables are ready, it is often grown one at a time and eaten raw in salads.
Learn more: Mizuna
Leaf-green Tatsoi is common in salads and side dishes. Source: Davidsilbersil
A fast growing green, Tatsoi or Brassica rapa var. Rosularis, this dark-leaved plant is one of the most nutritious plants in the world. This low-growing plant, valued for its source of vitamins (especially vitamin C), is similar to pak choi, but is shorter and darker than its well-known cousin. It is widely used in Chinese cuisine and can be made with lo bok or zucchini. Its succulent stems are often cooked with bamboo shoots or water chestnuts in traditional Chinese dishes.
Learn more: Tatsoi
Gai Lan is a dark Asian green that is popular in wok cooking. Source: World to Table
Gai Lan, or Chinese broccoli, is a popular vegetable for stir-fry or traditional steamed vegetable dishes. Known as Chinese broccoli, it has wide, flat leaves that grow around a thick, fibrous stem. It looks similar to Choy Sum and is very common in Asian dishes. This Asian green is unique in that it can be eaten after it has started to bloom. Roses, leaves and stems are edible and sought-after parts of this Chinese broccoli. The dark green leaves are full of vitamin C and it also tastes wonderful when pickled!
Learn more: Gai Lan
All types of peppers from mild to hot are used. Source: dust jelly
Although paprika is not native to Asia, it has become a staple in Asian cuisine since its introduction hundreds of years ago. Bell peppers are grown both as a vegetable and as a flavoring. Hundreds of new varieties have emerged since their introduction in Asia, from sweet peppers to mouth-sore spicy varieties such as Thai chilli pepper. Paprika is used in Thai, Chinese, and Indian cuisines and is a dominant flavor.
Learn more: Jalapeno
Learn more: Paprika Bell
Eggplants grow in many shapes and sizes. Source: susanvg
Eggplants have been eaten for millennia and even used for their medicinal properties and to make colorants. Although this vegetable is also widespread in Europe, there are many varieties that are unique to Asia. The Japanese-type eggplant is a long, thin, dark purple eggplant that is great for grilling or stir-frying with ginger and spring onions.
Several different types of Thai eggplant look like little balls of green or purple. These eggplants can be fried with corn and spinach, or even fried and eaten in salads. Also popular in South Indian cuisine, larger purple eggplants, similar to the European eggplant, are often steamed with onions and tomatoes to make curries.
Learn more: Eggplant
Lotus root has a mild taste but is visually appealing. Source: kattebelletje
Lotus root is an herbaceous perennial native to Asian waters. It is the root of the beautiful lotus flower and a crunchy treat in many Chinese and Japanese dishes. It grows in the mud of ponds or small watercourses and is a thin-skinned, white-fleshed vegetable with many holes inside the root. This vegetable is so popular in China that babies' plump arms and legs are often affectionately referred to as the lotus root.
Learn more: lotus root
One of the most popular Asian flavors is ginger. Source: Chinese Soup Pot
Ginger, or Zingiber officinale, is a rhizome, which means that it grows underground like a root. This hot and spicy plant is ubiquitous in Asian cuisine and known worldwide for its healthy effects on the body. While it takes up to ten months for the plant's rhizomes to mature and grow into a decent harvest, the plants themselves are often beautiful and add a tropical feel to the garden.
Learn more: ginger
Galangal is closely related to ginger. Source: Ruth and Dave
While galangal, also known as Alpinia galanga or Alipinia officinarum, is often confused with its cousin ginger, galangal is a plant in its own right with a more toned-down taste than ginger. Common in Thai cuisine, these rhizomes grow underground in a light brown, bulbous shape with beautiful tropical green foliage above the ground.
Learn more: Galangal
Turmeric colors many curries a bright goldenrod yellow. Source: arbyreed
Turmeric or Curcuma longa is a tropical rhizome that produces the beautiful, colored turmeric spice common in Indian cuisine. It can also be used as a dye and medicinal herb. It has a very earthy taste that gives dishes, especially curries, spice and pizzazz. Above ground, broad green leaves shoot up and out and have a decidedly tropical appearance.
Learn More: Turmeric
Taro is a popular starchy vegetable. Source: Tim Evanson
Taro root, or Colocasia esculenta, is a type of elephant ear plant that has huge leaves that grow up to 6 feet tall in various colors. A staple food in parts of Southeast Asia, it looks like a ringed and hairy potato. The taro interior is white to pink and has a sweet, nutty taste. The tubers are in the shape of potatoes, but have a thick, brown exterior and pointed tips.
Learn more: Taro
Garlic and chives add a garlic and onion flavor. Source: Emily Barney
Garlic chives, also known as Chinese chives, are a versatile member of the allium family. This plant can be steamed or added to broths and dumplings and is a clumping and herbaceous perennial. At first glance, this might look like grass, but with white flowers found on the tips of the plant in late summer and scapes rising from the center of the plant, it quickly shows its true color. Grown from rhizome, it is a prolific producer over time.
Find out more: Garlic Chives
People love or hate cilantro. Source: arbyreed
Coriander is one of the most popular herbs in the kitchen today. It is used in everything from Mexican food to African and Indian food to Thai food. Coriander is a fresh green bite that goes well with any meal. It is a harvest for the cool season and only grows at temperatures below 65-70 degrees before blooming and producing flowers and coriander seeds. Coriander seeds are also a popular and sought-after spice that is most commonly used in Indian cuisine.
Learn more: Coriander
Cumin is used in many meat dishes. Source: joshbousel
As the second most popular spice in the world, cumin is a widely used herb that is grown for its aromatic seeds. Cumin or Cuminum cyminum is actually also used for its medicinal properties and is full of vitamins and minerals that are good for your health. The plant is a tiny pinnate green plant that, once bloomed, produces a tiny banana-shaped seed called cumin!
Learn more: Cumin
Vietnamese coriander gives many dishes herbal notes. Source: Ahmad Fuad Morad
Vietnamese coriander, sometimes called Vietnamese coriander or laksa leaf, is a great alternative to the coriander commonly found in the United States. While it's not related (and therefore fine by people who think cilantro has a soapy taste), it's part of what makes it great that it's a warm-weather plant. So if coriander screws up at this time of year, it will still grow. Its pointed and elongated leaves and its dense growth make it ideal as a source of herbs in the garden.
Learn more: Vietnamese coriander
Thai basil plays an important role in many dishes. Source: Les Serres Fortier
Thai basil is a cousin of Western Genovese basil, and while it is less well known among Westerners, it is certainly not due to a lack of flavor. With a strong taste that combines the sweet tones of basil with a peppery bite, this plant is used to garnish soups and cooked together with Japanese eggplants and water chestnuts to make delicious stir-fries. With dark green leaves and purple flowers, this plant can also serve as an ornamental plant.
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Mint gives a fresh taste. Source: M. MacKenzie
Mint is one of the most popular fresh herbs in the world. With a refreshing peppery taste and a tendency to take over the garden, this is one herb you will never get tired of. Mint has been used for both its culinary and medicinal properties for millennia and is used in a variety of dishes, from a refreshing mint tea to a sparkling Indian chutney.
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Leeks make a nice addition to vegetable dishes. Source: karenandbrademerson
Leek is known in large parts of the world, but originally comes from Asia! Asian cuisine has used this spicy ingredient for a long time. While it doesn't have the same punch as other members of the Allium family, such as shallots or bundle onions, the leek's more subtle flavor works well in soups and roasts. Leek has alternating flat, broad leaves and grows in stems with white bottoms and dark green tips. Depending on the kitchen, almost the entire plant is eaten.
Learn more: Leeks
All types of onions are used in Asian cuisine. Source: Paul Kidd
Onions are widely used in Asian cuisine, whether sautéed with mushrooms and cauliflower, or used as garlic with grilled meat. Onions make food good! You can eat a variety of onions too! Whether grown for their yellow, red, or white onions, or for their green stems, what variety you use and how you cook them can make a dish or break it.
Learn more: onions
Shallots are close relatives of onions. Source: Farmanac
Shallots are the perfect cool weather plant to grow in the garden. Packed with a pungent flavor, these shallots grow when you are most likely to have openings in your garden. Originally from Asia, these alliums grow as onions, similar to garlic. This crop can last in the pantry for several months and can be quite expensive in grocery stores.
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Lemongrass is widely used in Thai cuisine. Source: papayatreelimited
Beautiful lemongrass gives many dishes, especially those of Thai origin, a lemony note. The grass also makes a lovely ornament in most garden settings. Grow some of this tall weed for a bright and lemony flavor enhancer!
Learn more: lemongrass
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