If you’ve eaten at authentic Asian restaurants like Chinese or Thai, there’s a good chance you’ve come across gai lan. Also called Chinese broccoli, this easy-to-love leafy green vegetable is a fixture in several classic Asian dishes, and is also used a simple stir-fry side dish. This guide to gai lan has the details on to prep, cook, and enjoy using it.
Smaller stalks can be used whole, leaves, florets, and all, while it’s best to separate thicker stalks from their leaves to give them a head start in their brief cooking time. We’ll get to all that, ahead.
What is gai lan and how does it taste?
Like broccoli, gai lan, aka kai-lan or Chinese broccoli, is a leafy green of the brassica family of vegetables, As described by Melissa’s Great Book of Produce by Cathy Thomas:
“Dense crisp stalks are reminiscent of broccoli but are longer, narrower, and more cylindrical. The leafy greens at the top surround clusters of tightly packed buds that can bloom into white flowers.
Gai lan’s flavor profile is bolder and more complex than that of broccoli. The flavor borders on the pungent taste of rapini (broccoli rabe), with a pleasant yet gentler bitter edge that’s balanced with sweetness. The delectably crunchy texture is best suited for quick cooking.”
Buying and storing
Look for bunches of gai lan that are bright green with tightly closed buds. Stalks and leaves should be firm, crisp, and fresh looking, not wilted or droopy. Refrigerate unwashed in produce bags, where this vegetable will keep for up to a week. Of course, like other leafy greens, the sooner used, the better.
This isn’t an easy vegetable to find in your everyday supermarket or natural foods store produce section. It will be easy to find in Asian markets, though. A great online source is Melissa’s Produce, where you’ll find it as well as other Asian vegetables, as well as just about every type of produce under the sun. While its origins are Asian, gai lan is also being grown in the U.S. and Mexico.
Like all Asian greens, gai lan is very low in calories and packed with fiber. It’s an excellent source of vitamin A, C, and folate. Here’s a complete nutritional profile and description of the benefits of this useful vegetable.
If you see or feel evidence of sand and grit, allow the whole stems and leaves to soak briefly in a large bowl of cold water for a few minutes, then scoop out.
Trim about a half inch from the bottom of the stalks. Rinse with cold running water, then pat dry. If the gai lan is small, you can leave it whole. If larger, cut the stalks into 1- to 2-inch lengths, slice the leaves down the center, then cut across into ribbons.
How to cook
Blanch: Prep the gai lan as directed under Prep. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan or small soup pot. Immerse for 30 seconds for small stalks and no more than a minute for larger stalks.
Drain and refresh under cold running water to retain color. Leave small stalks whole; chop large stalks as directed under prep to add to noodle or grain dishes. Or, allow to cool and pack into containers to freeze.
Stir-fry: Prep the gai lan as directed under Prep. Heat just enough oil to coat the bottom of a wok or stir-fry pan (or use a little water if you cook oil-free). You can start your stir-fry with 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped, if you’d like.
If using larger gai lan, from which you separated the leaves from the stems, add the stems first. Stir-fry for 1 to 3 minutes, depending on the thickness, just until bright green. Add the prepared leaves and continue to stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes longer, just until wilted. Either way, remove from the heat at once. Use as a side dish or allow to cool and pack into containers to freeze.
Two recipes on this site for a delicious Thai dish: Gluten-Free and Vegan Pad See Ew with Tofu (above) and Pad See Ew with Plant-Based Protein.
Easy ways to use gai lan, with links to vegan recipes
Simple stir-fried side dish: If you search for easy ways to use this vegetable, you’ll come across lots of recipes for the simple stir-fry, as described above, with oyster sauce. We’re not going to recommend that on this vegan site, so you can embellish this simple stir-fry with Chinese black bean sauce, sweet chili sauce, or teriyaki sauce. A sprinkling of sesame seeds never hurts! If you’re looking for a specific recipe for a simple stir-fry, consider starting with Chinese Broccoli Stir-Fry.
Stir-fry with plant protein: Boost your greens to main dish status by cooking with your favorite plant protein. It’s especially good with tofu and seitan. Here’s a delicious, Chinese-style recipe for Gai Lan with Tofu Stir-Fry.
In Thai specialties: As you’ll find under the photo of Pad See Ew above this section, gai lan is commonly used in that Thai specialty. Here’s another recipe — Gai Lan with Garlic and Coconut, flavored with those and other Thai ingredients, including lemongrass and dried chili pepper.
A good noodle companion: Gai lan is a great addition to noodles, proven by its use in Pad See Ew. Here’s a delicious recipe from another cuisine, Indonesian Street Noodles.
Rice embellishment: Chopped gai lan is a great addition to Asian-flavored rice dishes. Here’s a delicious example — Gai Lan and Shiitake Stir-Fried Rice (just omit the eggs).
Soup green: Gai lan is a wonderful addition to brothy, Asian-style soups. Just add it at the last minute so that it doesn’t get overcooked and lose its bright color. Chinese Noodle, Tofu, and Vegetable Soup is a fantastic example.
If you enjoy Asian vegetables, you might also like this Guide to Bok Choy.
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