5-A-Day: Choi Sum

(Click on the logo for another choi sum recipe)

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of all the local greens around here — watercress, Chinese mustard cabbage (gai choy), and fiddleheads (warabi) have been touched on earlier. Two other versatile and highly nutritious locally grown vegetables are choi sum (Brassica parachinensis) and Chinese broccoli, or gai lan (Brassica oleracea), both also members of the cabbage family.

At the markets these two are sometimes confused for the other — shoppers looking for Chinese broccoli will pick up choi sum, and vice versa. Both vegetables have long stems with large lobe-shaped leaves and flowers at the end. The trick to telling them apart is that Chinese broccoli has thick, waxy-looking stems and leaves, and white flowers (right); while choi sum stems and leaves look more tender, and it has dark yellow flowers (left). When the flowering tip of Chinese broccoli is tightly closed, it can also be confused with its Continental cousin, broccoli rabe or
rapini — but broccoli rabe has serrated leaf edges (photo on Wikipedia).

Chinese broccoli stems and flowers are similar in flavor to western broccoli; but it has the added nutritional value of having edible leaves as well. Chinese broccoli requires some peeling and sorting (stems from leaves) after washing, and so requires some extra prep work before cooking. We’ll take a closer look at it soon.

For now, let’s just focus on choi sum. Every part of choi sum is edible, and the stems are relatively soft and fast-cooking so whether you separate the stems from the leaves or leave it whole will depend on what you want to do with the vegetable. One of the easiest and most versatile ways to prepare choi sum is to simply steam the entire bunch. Once steamed, the vegetable can be kept in the fridge for 3-4 days until needed. It can be served cold with a
sesame or other dressing, or re-heated with pan sauce such as the Spicy Garlic Sauce below.

We also like to use choi sum greens in fried noodle dishes, including Japanese yakisoba and Korean chap chae. In this case, separate the leaves from the stems/flowers. Now you can julienne the leaves for the noodles and steam the stems whole for a separate vegetable dish. We recently made chap chae using choi sum leaves already steamed in a bunch — the cooked leaves were simply separated, then added after the meat and other vegetables were cooked too.

Choi sum is a very mild-tasting green when cooked (similar to spinach), and easily absorbs dressings, sauces and aromatics around it. It has none of the bitterness that watercress, mustard cabbage or other similar greens have, so it’s a good choice for someone who might be exploring Asian greens for the first time. It is also easy to clean and prep, and cooks fast which also make it a great candidate as a “gateway vegetable.”

As with any vegetable, organic or not, a good bath in a vinegar-water solution (2 TBL. vinegar for every 1 quart/liter water) and several rinses with cool water is a good way to start. Trim any discolored or questionable parts, then lay in a prepared steamer once the steam is at its peak (careful not to burn yourself). Cover and allow to steam for about 4-5 minutes, then immediately remove from steamer onto a large plate to cool — spread stems into a single layer on the plate. It should be a dark vibrant green, and the stems almost translucent. Once the greens are cool enough to handle, bring into a bunch and gently squeeze out excess moisture — you don’t want to wring it dry, just keep it from being dripping wet. These photos show the cooked vegetable after cooling, but before (left) and after (right) squeezing.

Now you’re ready to have your way with them! Cut into chopstick-friendly pieces, they can grace the top of your saimin/ramen soup; drizzled with sesame or citrus dressing it’s a quick and delicious side dish to any meal; chopped up and scrambled with eggs or quiche it’s a nice change from spinach; or top it off with this spicy garlic-rich sauce if you really want to kick it up a notch!

The folks at the “Island Fresh” campaign also have a soup recipe using fresh choi sum, just click on their logo at the top to check it out.

For one pound of choi sum, watercress, or warabi (or any hearty green)

4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 TBL. olive oil
1 tsp. raw sugar
1-3 tsp. sriracha chili sauce
1-1/2 TBL. fermented soy beans (dao jiao), mashed with a fork
1 TBL. soy sauce
2 TBL. Thai-style fish sauce (or patis, less if using a Vietnamese brand)
2 TBL. rice, coconut or apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 TBL. cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water
ground black pepper

1 lb. of cooked choi sum or other green

In a wok or large skillet, cook garlic in oil over medium heat until garlic is fragrant. Sprinkle with sugar and mix through. Add sriracha, mashed soy beans, soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, and water, and mix well to combine. Increase heat to medium high and allow mixture to come to a boil. Turn heat back down to medium, add cooked greens, and simmer for 5 minutes.

Make a hole in the center of wok/pan, and add dissolved cornstarch to center. Cook until sauce thickens, and coat greens with sauce.

Remove greens to serving plate, and pour sauce over. We had this as a side dish with the
Kasu-marinated Butterfish last month.

Other Island Fresh produce on this site:
Melons, Watercress, Mustard Cabbage, Warabi, Daikon, Eggplant, Corn, and Beef.