In Asian grocery stores, you’ll notice lots of unfamiliar vegetables and supplies. Below is a list of some of the vegetables that can be found in a typical Chinatown store. Most of them taste better when cooked. Along with the descriptions, we’ve given some basic preparation tips. For those wishing to master some of the best ways for creating tasty veggies -- with the right amount of moisture, beautiful colors and pleasing textures, you may want to check out our culinary classes , including Steaming and Stir-fry.
You can stock up with a lot more culinary treasures from the Asian grocery shops in Chinatown. To get a full picture, take a Chinatown tour with us - you’ll learn about Asian cuisines as well as the early history of the Chinese and Asian immigration.
Amaranth: an extremely delicate leafy “green”. To get the best of this veggie, it is crucial to control your cooking time. Or its gorgeous purple will run off right in front of your eyes.
Asparagus Lettuce: often piled up for display without a name, it is so called at least partly because its stalk looks similar to an asparagus’ (but much wider in diameter like a squash). The top comes with thin lettuce-like leaves (often removed from the stalk and sold separately, however). As a part of the preparation, your must peel off its skin. While yanking the skin off, you might notice some milky sweat droplets that is normal. Its tender flesh is exceptionally luscious when stir-fried. Watch out for the discoloration at the root and tip of the stalk on your grocery trip, however, just like you must when selecting leafy romaine lettuce. The rusty tip in particular could mean that it is well past freshness.
Baby Bok Choy, Shanghai Choy and Yu Choy: mini version of their full sized siblings, they are usually packed in plastic bags and kept in the refrigerated veggie section of an Asian grocery shop. Grab them for quick and easy prep!
Bitter Gourd: wearing a smartly bumpy skin, it is highly appreciated by the Southern Chinese and Southeast Asians on hot summer days when they need something to stimulate their appetite. But this squash’s bitter flavor is definitely an “acquired” taste. Removing its seeds is a must in preparation. To further manage its bitter taste, you could first blanch it quickly.
Bok Choy: meaning “White Cabbage” in Cantonese, perhaps because of its bulging white stalk. This is a juicy green marvelous for stir-fry.
Chinese Broccoli: on the shelf for all seasons, its stalk, including the skin, tastes absolutely wonderful. The leaves are edible, too, of course.
Chinese Celery: with thinner stalks than the American variety, it offers a much more vibrant taste.
Chinese Okra: known as towel gourd in Chinese because, by the time it can be harvested for seeds, its old flesh will have hardened into a bath or kitchen sponge, useable as is. You must first peel the rims on the skin as a part of the preparation. Cantonese grocers name it Chinese okra, perhaps due to the similar texture it yields after cooking.
Chinese Yam: when available, usually piled up in an open freezer without a name tag. It can afford the same versatile treatment as regular yams, but is much more delicate than the latter.
Chive with Flowering Buds: amazingly delicious when paired with meat, the buds are edible, too.
Chayote: a member of the squash family, it spins out a subtle sweetness when stir-fried.
Cow Pea: several times longer than regular string beans, and with a firmer texture, it is truly a special treat for string bean lovers. Do pick off the head of its stem for preparation.
Daikon: a white balky radish that can accommodate versatile handling. When used raw, it gives you a kick in flavor and tastes much juicier than small red radishes. The Chinese, Japanese and Koreans like to use it in various kinds of stew, too.
Day Lily Bulb: resourceful and capable of adding flair to a dish, the bulb is appreciated more by the Chinese for its medicinal benefits for coughs. Dry bulb leaves are also available in 1⁄2 lb packs.
Flat Leave Chive: tougher than the variety that populates many home herb gardens, this vegetable is popular with the Northern Chinese as fillings for pot stickers. It also goes well with omelets.
Fuzzy Squash: so called perhaps because of the prickly fine hairs on its skin. It is juicier and sweeter than the Italian squash. Remove the skin and seeds for preparation.
Galanga Root: the spice root that gives Thai curries its subtle aroma in perfect harmony with Lemon Grass.
Ginger Root: the popular spice which the Chinese find indispensable for preparing any meat, poultry or seafood dishes. It can substitute for galanga.
Green Daikon: like regular Daikon, but it sometimes comes with a deep purple flesh. The deep purple variety tastes juicier, and sometimes so sweet that the Northern Chinese treat it as a fruit. Some like to make a tea with it as a home remedy for coughs as a supplement to medicines. As a cough remedy, Green Daikon is taken together with the brew -- skin as well as flesh, and usually for an extended period of time.
Homi Melon: a small football shaped cantaloupe known for its sweetness and fragrance, it has only recently appeared in select Asian markets.
Jicama: an unpretentious root vegetable with a firm flesh that becomes sweet, juicy and crunchy when cooked. Peeling is extremely easy. Simply prick the skin open with the tip of your knife, hold it by the torn edge, and yank it off piece by piece.
Kohlrabi: spaceship-like in appearance, it tastes a bit like Jicama, but juicier. It can be eaten both raw and cooked.
Lemon Grass: with a thin stalk and husks, its tender center renders a special perfume to curries, soups, and stir-fries.
Lotus Root: an extremely versatile ingredient, it can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Also fantastic if treated for presentation.
Mustard Green: available for all seasons, it is easily recognizable by its big mass of stalk. The Cantonese love its refreshing feeling in your mouth.
Napa Cabbage: commonly available now in average supermarkets, it is one of the most flexible of all Chinese vegetables, for stir-fry, in soup, as a part of the filling in any pot stickers or however you’d like to prepare it according to your imagination. Napa cabbage can also be stored for a long time. A fresh one should be firm, and without tiny black spots on its leaves.
Pummelo: a citrus fruit with a denser texture than grape fruit. It’s a bit messy to open, however. Underneath the skin there’s a thick layer of soft tissue. You must remove it all, along with the pith, and preferably also the jacket of each sliver of the fruit. The flesh, subtly sweet and scented, can be eaten on its own or added to your next salad, giving it a bit of panache!
Potherb Mustard: in the same family of mustard green, with a thin stem, that tastes slightly bitter but leaves a delightful after taste. Consider it a substitute for Broccoli-rob (for a better taste, in our biased opinion). This green can be stir-fried fresh or after pickled (packed in small sealed plastic bags, sometimes available in the open freezer section where grocers also stock various types of noodles).
Shanghai Choy: with a lighter shade of green and less juice than Bok Choy. Prepare it the same way as Bok Choy.
Sweet Pea Shoots/Pea Sprouts: tender tips and greens of sweet peas, they are usually packed in plastic bags in the refrigerated veggie section in an Asian grocery shop.
Sweet Potato Leaves: occasionally available, they taste crunchy when cooked. It's supposed to be great for improving the workings of one's digestive system. Discard the unchewable thicker end of the stem.
Taro: two sizes are available, with the small one sometimes going by its Japanese name “Eddo”. You can prepare it as you prepare potatoes. Obviously, the skin must be removed for consumption.
Thai Basil: with a more intense aroma than classical Italian basil and a liquorish flavor. It is recognizable by its purple stems, and more deeply etched veins on its leaves. Thai basil is a key ingredient in Vietnamese Pho or rice noodle soups, and can substitute for the Italian cousin in pestos.
(Thin) Eggplant: with softer flesh than regular eggplant, it should be prepared accordingly with a gentler approach. Its skin tastes lovely, too.
Water Spinach: called “Water Lily” in oriental groceries, this is a high fiber green with hollow stems that are deliciously crunchy if prepared properly.
Bean Threads: also known as vermicelli, they come in thin noodle and broad tape varieties. They are great for fillings, soups, as well as stir fries, and must be re-hydrated for use.
Crunchy Black Mushroom: or Wood Ear, which must be re-hydrated and cleaned as a part of the preparation. It can be used in soups, stir-fries or steamed dishes. The Chinese believe they are good for the digestive system, and great for cardiac health.
Dried Lily: the buds of the lily flowers, they must be re-hydrated for preparation. This is a key ingredient in a classical Mushui dish or Hot and Sour Soup. It has a lovely crunchy texture, and will take on the flavors of other ingredients in the same dish.
Dried Mushrooms: whole or sliced, a good selection is available. The most well-known is the Shitake which, like the Porcini, tastes fabulously earthy.
Dried Tofu: most commonly in sticks or tied nuggets, they are great for soups or red stews. Paper thin variety which the Japanese call Yuba is also available, usable in soups or as a wrap.
Dumpling Flours: a wide selection available for making steamed buns, dumplings, and various steamed dim sums, some made with wheat, others with rice or other starch. All are packed in one-pound bags, and have instructions on the back.
Noodles: many types of dried Asian noodles, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, are available. They generally need much shorter cooking time than pasta. Fresh varieties are kept in the open freezer section along with fresh tofu.
Rice: the most commonly available including medium grains of Botan, Kokubo or Takami brands. These are the types usable for Sushi. You can also find brown rice, purple rice, sweet rice (often used for desserts in the East and Southeast Asian cuisines) and black rice (black sweet rice).
Rice Noodles: choices are many. A tape-like semi-translucent rice noodle is the one commonly used for Pad Thai and Pho. Other varieties of various thicknesses, white or translucent, are for Chinese stir-fries or soups.
Bean Paste: a wide assortment on display in an Asian grocery isle could be a bit confusing. So try to determine whether you want a hot and spicy variety or one without the chili pepper as its ingredient. It can be used in marinades or as a substitute for soy sauce with proper handling.
Black Bean Paste: see Fermented Black Beans, below.
Coconut Milk: essential for curry dishes and soups typical of Thai and other South East Asian cuisines, as well as for ice creams, it is conveniently available in cans. Note different levels of fat content as shown on different cans. The lower fat level is better for your health, but has less flavor.
Corn Starch: the ingredient which every Chinese household stocks up on for daily use.
Curry Paste: handy for creating coconut curries, it comes in a range of colors, as indicated by the colors of the cans. Typically for Southeast Asians, the choice of the color refers to that of the veggies that go with the curry.
Fermented Black Beans: usually packed in plastic bags and stacked in an isle along with other bags of more recognizable beans, these are what give that special flavor to the black bean-based dishes you find in a Chinese restaurant. But unless you’re a die-hard fan and use them frequently, you might find it easier to get the black bean paste instead. The paste delivers less flavor, however.
Fish Sauce: similar to soy sauce but with a much more pungent flavor, it is used widely in curries, soups and other dishes where soy sauce is called for in the Southeast Asian cuisines.
Five Spices: one of the important ingredients in Sichuan dishes.
Hoisen Sauce: otherwise known as plum sauce, it is a key ingredient in Shandong style of cooking, and one which the Cantonese cuisine has adopted as its own. Hoisen sauce is most commonly used with pan cakes for Peking duck and Mushui dishes.
Mirin: a Japanese rice wine, milder than the Chinese Shaoxing wine. Both are excellent for cooking, and can add complexity to a recipe. The two cooking wines can be used interchangeably. For someone wanting a mellower flavor, Mirin is perfect. If you want to give a dish more exuberance, then use Shaoxing instead.
Miso: a versatile paste for soups and savory dishes, it comes in three different shades, white (made with rice), red (made with barley) and black (made with soya beans); the darker the color, the saltier and more intense its flavor a fermented smoky aroma. Miso must be stored in a refrigerator. Start with a small bag, for it loses flavor over time.
Oyster Sauce: a favorite ingredient for Cantonese dishes, especially for “quick and dirty” prep.
Ponzu: a Japanese citrus juice with a whiff of refinement that can be used instead of vinegar or lemon. Use with reservation, however, for it is quite acidic.
Prickly Ash Pepper: extremely fragrant when rendered properly, and complex in flavor, this spice is central to Sichuan cuisine, much more so than the red chili pepper. It is also used in Jiangsu and Shandong styles of cooking. These pepper berries are also a critical ingredient for red stews.
Rock Sugar: crystal-like, it is used primarily for red stews.
Sesame Oil: central for any marinate, including any fillings, and often used to give a scented aroma to a dish or soup, it is also good for rendering an Asian signature to a salad dressing.
Shaoxing Wine: a potent cooking wine made from the town of Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, that has a well-known history of rice wine manufacturing. It is great for all Chinese dishes where cooking wine is called for, especially for meat, poultry and fish recipes.
Soy Sauce: a key component in East Asian cooking, it comes in many selections. The mainland Chinese use mostly the Pearl River brand -- the un-aged version for marinate or stir-fries, and aged variety for red stews and roasting. Both are good for assembling a dipping sauce. The top Japanese soy sauce selling in this country is the Kikoman's. The soy sauces from the two nations may be used interchangeably, but the Chinese version generally offers a bit more body. For classical Japanese dishes, you should stay with the Japanese soy sauce.
Star Anise: the spice which the Chinese use primarily to enhance the taste of red stews or broths.
Sweet Chili Sauce: great for assembling any dipping sauces.
Sweet Potato Vermicelli: with a pleasing bite and texture, these dark glass noodles are great added to a soup, used as a part of a stir-fry dish or eaten as a staple in their own right.
Tamari Sauce: a soy sauce with an elegant bouquet. Quality ones are made 100% with soy beans.
Vinegar: a bewildering array is available in Asian grocery aisles, all made with grains as the primary ingredient. Most of the dark Chinese vinegars also have a bit of sugar added, except for the aged variety which is appreciated by the Northern Chinese for its tartly acidic taste. Clear Chinese vinegars can be used interchangeably with dark ones. The Japanese vinegars, all clear, are milder than their Chinese counterpart. Some are pre-seasoned for use in salad dressing.
Wasabi: in a can of powder or a tube of paste. Powdered wasabi must be mixed with water for use. It affords a much stronger flavor than the wasabi paste.
Air-Dried Sausages: scrumptious with an intricate essence; these uncooked delicacies can be used on their own or as replacements for bacon and pancetta. This is the secret ingredient that Southern Chinese families turn to when they want to add a protein dish quickly to a routine meal.