The world of Asian vegetables can seem a bit intimidating if you haven’t grown up around it. But there is such variety, uniqueness, and flavor in them that they are well worth a quick study! Some even have purported medicinal qualities.
Asian vegetables can be hard to find outside of the countries where they originate, and not all cities have stores specializing in importing exotic vegetables. Growing in your own backyard can often be the best bet, not just in terms of being able to find the special vegetables called for in a recipe.
Growing Japanese eggplant, lotus root, or taro root in the backyard can make your homemade cooking really pop with flavor! From the mild flavor of napa cabbage and gai lan to the delicious bite of bitter melon, Asian vegetables open up a whole new world of cooking.
Here is a cheat sheet for people wanting to get a good look at some of what’s out there!
Bitter melon, or Momordica charantia, also known as balsam pear, is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family and is an incredibly bitter vegetable. While it’s shaped like a cucumber, it has a striking bubbly and shiny surface. A vining plant, it often needs a very sturdy trellis to take the weight of all the fruit it produces.
As it increases in bitterness with age, they’re usually harvested while young and pickled, stuffed, or cooked with sauce in a stir fry. While especially common in Okinawan food, it’s also found in Chinese cuisine, Thai cuisine, and Filipino food.
The Epic Gardening iconic Luffa grow challenge highlighted this incredible plant, the Luffa aegyptiaca and Luffa acutangula. But, did you also know that it’s a vegetable and eaten while young? It’s only the larger, mature, and dried luffas that are used to clean your dirty legs after gardening! The younger and immature version of this plant is regularly eaten in place of squash or in stews.
Sometimes referred to as the princess bean or goa bean, the winged bean or Psophocarpus tetragonolobus has a similar growth habit to regular pole beans, but the plant itself is very unique in appearance. Looking like a 4 sided or winged cucumber, the winged bean is a very traditional Chinese vegetable. Like other beans it is also protein-rich and adds nitrogen to the soil – the nutrient most often lacking in vegetable gardens!
A member of the bean family, Vigna unguiculata ssp. Sesquipedalis or yardlong beans not only feed you but also the garden! This nitrogen-fixing plant will deposit nutrients in the ground around it while pushing out its namesake crop of beans almost up to a yard long! It’s for the long stringy appearance that they’re also sometimes called asparagus beans.
While common in many Asian countries, yardlong beans are a bit crunchier than Western Beans and are very commonly used in stir-fries.
Bottle gourds or Langenaria siceraria come from the Cucurbitaceae family, and like many of its cousins, will vine their way up a trellis and produce a multitude of double-curved gourds. With a mild taste similar to summer squash or cucumber, they’re generally eaten stir-fried or in a curry.
They’re usually harvested at a young and immature stage if eaten. If left on the vine, they’ll grow hard and eventually can be hollowed out to make birdhouses or other projects.
Snow peas, or Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon, is a fast-growing vining crop that will twist and wind its way around the garden. The snow pea itself is a 3-5 inch long light green pod with peas growing inside it. Unlike with many other types of peas, snow peas are eaten whole – pod and all and are a great crunchy and sweet addition to any stir fry.
Learn More: Snow Peas
Winged yam, or Dioscorea alata, is actually a ‘true yam’. Different from American Sweet potatoes that are often mistakenly called ‘yams’, this plant is also known by the name ‘ube’ in Philippino cuisine. Popularly used in deserts, it has a naturally sweet flavor and comes in a range of colors – although the bright purple Zambales is a very popular variety.
It’s eaten in rice cakes or ube jam among many other forms. This plant is native to the Philippines and Indonesia but has been eaten for thousands of years. It reputedly has medicinal use for hemorrhoids and fevers.
Learn More: Winged Yam
Lentils, or Lens culinaris, are a traditional and protein-packed little bean in the legume family. Tiny little protein factories, you need to eat quite a few of these in soups, stews, or salads to get enough protein. But their delicious flavor in dishes like tarka dhal has cemented them as a very popular food in Indian cooking. Their flavor is mild and nutty and easily blends with whatever spices are added to it. Growing on short vine-like plants, the lentils grow inside pods.
Learn More: Lentils
Daikon radishes are the mild version of the western radish. Growing in a range of colors from a milky white to red to watermelon patterned, the daikon radish is most often pickled to make delicious accents and side dishes. It’s the enlarged taproot of daikon radishes that are usually eaten. The Japanese daikon radish, a large white veggie, is particularly famous.
Learn More: Daikon Radish
Chinese celery may seem a little odd to many people unfamiliar with Chinese food. It has a more pronounced flavor than Western celery and can easily be mistaken as an herb. Not only is it great for digestion, but it is also much smaller than Western celery. The thin stalks and the leaves of the plant are eaten as well. Varieties range in color from white to dark green.
A delicious and hearty green, broccoli rabe or, Brassica oleracea var. Alboglabra, is common throughout the world. In appearance, it’s the cousin to Gai Lan with its thick stalks and broad leaves. However, broccoli rabe has a curled leaf and a flavor a little more similar to broccoli despite not being related.
Similar to Chinese broccoli and cool-season crops, it will bolt and become bitter if eaten once temperatures begin to climb.
Bok choy, or Brassica rapa var. chinensis comes in many many different varieties. This green-leafed vegetable is one of the most well-known Chinese vegetables outside of China. A type of Chinese cabbage, Bok choy grows more like a small head of lettuce. The stalks are firm with tender greens and can range in color from bright white to a pale green or even harvested while tiny as baby bok choy.
Different types are grown to make different styles of cooking. Bok choy is loved the world over for stir-fries with tofu or meat and steamed vegetable dishes. This is one of the most common veggies you’ll find in Asian markets!
Learn More: Bok Choy
Napa cabbage, or Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis is one of the more commonly found Chinese veggies found in Western supermarkets. A cabbage with more delicate leaves than Western Cabbage, it’s eaten thinly sliced and cooked with soy sauce, pickled to make kimchi, or even eaten raw in salads.
This very versatile food from the cruciferous family is one of the first plants to go in the spring but can take a few months to fully mature. However, the flavor of this cabbage is what makes it so sought after.
This variety of Chinese cabbage can grow to be much larger than a Western cabbage – it can take up an entire vegetable drawer in the fridge! There are also a number of varieties that make napa cabbage unique like the Red Dragon Chinese Cabbage or the Red Dragon Hybrid Chinese Cabbage.
Learn More: Napa Cabbage
Mizuna greens, sometimes called spider mustard, are a peppery salad green similar to mustard greens and not for the faint of heart! These greens are one of the most nutritious vegetables in the entire world. While the mizuna green can be eaten in stir-fries, it’s often served raw, or even pickled for long-term storage.
This cool-season crop has a flavor that gets stronger with age. Mizuna comes in a variety of colors and shapes, but they all have a characteristic wispy or spikey leaf that grows in a mounding rosette shape. Leaves range in color from pale green to a striking dark purple that contains anthocyanin. Spider mustard is a prolific producer, grown in the early spring before many other vegetables are ready, it is often succession planted and eaten raw in salads.
Learn More: Mizuna
A fast-growing green, Tatsoi or Brassica rapa var. Rosularis, this dark-leafed plant is one of the most nutritious plants in the entire world. Prized for its source of vitamins (especially vitamin C) this low-growing plant looks similar to bok choy, yet is shorter and darker in color than its well-known cousin. Used commonly in Chinese cuisine you can cook it with lo bok or zucchini, its juicy stalks are often cooked down in Chinese traditional dishes with bamboo shoots or water chestnuts.
Learn More: Tatsoi
Gai lan or Chinese broccoli is a popular vegetable for stir-fries or traditional steamed vegetable dishes. Known as Chinese broccoli it has wide flat leaves growing around a thick fibrous stem. It looks similar to Choy sum and is very common in Asian food, this Asian green is unique in that it can be eaten after it has begun to flower. Florets, leaves, and stems are all edible and desired parts of this Chinese broccoli. The dark green leaves are packed full of vitamin C and it is wonderful when pickled as well!
Learn More: Gai Lan
While not native to Asia, peppers have become a staple in Asian cuisine since their introduction hundreds of years ago. Peppers are grown both as a vegetable and as a flavoring agent. Since their introduction to Asia, hundreds of new varieties have emerged from sweet peppers to mouth pain-inducing spicy ones such as the Thai Chili pepper. Used in Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisine, peppers are a dominant flavoring agent.
Learn More: Jalapeno
Learn More: Bell Peppers
Eggplants have been eaten for millennia and have even been used for their medicinal qualities and to make dye. While also eaten widely in Europe, this vegetable has many varieties that are unique to Asia. The Japanese type eggplant is a long thin and dark purple eggplant that lends itself well to grilling or as a stir fry with ginger and scallions.
Several different types of Thai eggplants look like small green or purple balls. These eggplants can be stir-fried with corn and spinach or even fried and eaten in salads. Popular in Southern Indian cuisine as well, larger purple eggplants that look similar to European eggplant are often stewed with onion and tomatoes to make curries.
Learn More: Eggplant
Lotus root is an herbaceous perennial native to Asian waters. It’s the root of the beautiful lotus flower and is a crunchy delight in a lot of Chinese and Japanese dishes. It grows in the mud of ponds or small waterways and is a thin-skinned, white-fleshed vegetable with lots of holes on the inside of the root. This vegetable is so beloved in China, that oftentimes babies’ chubby arms and legs are lovingly referred to as a lotus root.
Learn More: Lotus Root
Ginger, or Zingiber officinale, is a rhizome meaning that it grows underground similar to a root. This sharp and pungent plant is ubiquitous in Asian cuisine and is known world round for its healthy impact on the body. While it does take up to ten months for the rhizomes of the plant to mature and grow into a decent harvest, the plants themselves are often beautiful and lend themselves to a tropical feel in the garden.
Learn More: Ginger
While galangal, also known as Alpinia galanga or Alipinia officinarum, is often confused with its cousin ginger, galangal is its own plant with a more toned down flavor than ginger. Common in Thai cooking, these rhizomes grow in a pale tan tuber-looking shape underground with beautiful tropical green foliage above ground.
Learn More: Galangal
Turmeric or Curcuma longa, is a tropical rhizome that produces the lovely colored turmeric spice common in Indian cuisine. It can also be used as a dye and a medicinal plant. It has a very earthy flavor that adds spice and pep to dishes, especially curries. Above ground, broad green leaves shoot up and out and have a distinctly tropical look.
Learn More: Turmeric
Taro root, or Colocasia esculenta, is a type of elephant ear plant that has enormous leaves that get up to 6’ tall in a range of colors. It is a staple crop in parts of Southeast Asia and looks like a ringed and hairy potato. The taro interior comes in hues ranging from white to pink and has a sweet, nutty taste. The tubers are in the shape of potatoes but have a thick tan exterior and come to pointed tips.
Learn More: Taro
Garlic chives, also known as Chinese chives, are versatile members of the allium family. Able to be steamed or added to broths and dumplings, this plant is a clumping and herbaceous perennial. At first glance, this could look like grass, but with white blooms found at the tips of the plant during late summer and scapes rising out of the center of the plant, it quickly shows its true colors. Grown by rhizome, over time it’s a prolific producer.
Learn More: Garlic Chives
Cilantro is one of the most popular herbs found in cooking today. It’s used in everything from Mexican food to African and Indian food, as well as Thai food. A fresh green bite that compliments any meal, cilantro is a cool-season crop and will only grow in temps below 65-70 degrees before bolting and producing flowers and coriander seeds. Coriander seeds are also a well-loved and desired spice most often used in Indian cooking.
Learn More: Cilantro
As the second most popular spice in the world, cumin is a widely used herb that is grown for its flavorful 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 small feathery green plant that after it flowers produces a small banana-shaped seed called cumin!
Learn More: Cumin
Vietnamese coriander, sometimes called Vietnamese cilantro or laksa leaf, is a great alternative to the cilantro commonly available in the US. While it isn’t related (and thus ok for people who think cilantro has a soapy taste), part of what makes it so great is that it’s a warm-weather plant. So, when it’s that time of year that cilantro bolts – it’s still growing. Its pointed and oblong leaves and dense growing habit make it ideal as a source of herbs in the garden.
Learn More: Vietnamese Coriander
Thai Basil is a cousin to the Western Genovese basil, and while it may be lesser-known among Westerners, it is certainly not for lack of flavor. With a punchy taste that combines basils’ sweet tones with a peppery bite, this plant is used to garnish soups and cooked alongside Japanese eggplant and water chestnuts to make delicious stir-fries. With dark green leaves and purple flowers, this plant can serve as an ornamental as well.
Learn More: Basil
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 an herb you’ll never tire of. Used for both its culinary and medicinal properties over the millennia, mint is used in a variety of dishes from a refreshing mint tea, to a scintillating Indian chutney.
Learn More: Mint
Leeks are known throughout much of the world, but are originally from Asia! Asian cooking has long used this flavorful ingredient. While it doesn’t pack the same punch that other members of the Allium family like shallots or bunching onions do, the more subtle flavor of the leek lends itself well to soups and roasts. Leeks have alternating flat broad leaves and grow in stalks with white bottoms and dark green tops. Depending on the cuisine, almost the entire plant is eaten.
Learn More: Leeks
Onions are used extensively in Asian food, whether sauteed with mushrooms and cauliflower or used as garlic with grilled meat. Onions make food taste good! You can eat a wide variety of onions too! Whether grown for their yellow, red, or white bulbs or for their green stalks, which variety you use and how you cook them can make or break a dish.
Learn More: Onions
Shallot is the perfect cool weather crop to grow in the garden. Packed full of a sharp flavor, these shallots grow when you’re most likely to have openings in your garden space. Originally from Asia, these alliums grow as bulbs much like garlic does. Able to last in the pantry for several months, and quite expensive at grocery stores, this crop is a sure bet!
Learn More: Shallots
Lovely lemongrass provides a citrusy note to many dishes, particularly those of Thai origin. The grass also makes a lovely ornamental in most garden settings. Grow some of this tall grass for a bright and citrusy flavor booster!
Learn More: Lemongrass