Restaurant chefs and farmers’ markets have had a profound impact on the American cook’s interest in trying something new. In addition to the multitude of domestic heirloom vegetables, our marketplaces have also begun to swell with less common but delicious vegetables from around the world.
Some of these vegetables are available only in ethnic neighborhoods, but many of them have migrated to supermarkets across the nation. The following list is only a small sampling of the vegetables that are out there.
Types of Asian and Central American vegetables
Bamboo shoots: You’ve probably eaten crisp strips of bamboo shoots in Chinese dishes. They are literally the shoots—the young, sprouting stems—of a bamboo plant, which is a type of grass. Sometimes the shoots are cut when they first appear, but they may also be “hilled,” piled with soil as they grow. This prevents the development of the green pigment chlorophyll so the shoots remain pale. In supermarkets, you can usually find only canned bamboo shoots, which have been peeled and cut into strips. However, Chinese grocery stores often carry the fresh, whole shoots, which are cone-shaped and about 4 inches long. After rinsing, canned bamboo shoots can be added directly to stir-fries, as they are precooked and need only to be heated through. Fresh bamboo shoots should be boiled until tender, then husked and cut up. They can be stir-fried or served as you would asparagus.
Cardoon: Plants of the thistle family produce the familiar globe artichoke and also the celery-like cardoon. When the thick, silvery stalks are cooked, their flavor is reminiscent of artichokes, but they can also be eaten raw, like fennel or celery. Cardoons have long been popular in Italy, and can often be found in Italian markets in the United States in the winter and early spring. Look for slender, supple but firm stalks that are velvety-gray, not moist looking, and green like celery. Trim the bases and tops of the stalks, then cut them into strips to serve raw or into short pieces or squares for cooking. Cut the base into large chunks. Serve raw cardoon with other crudités for dipping. Dress the cooked vegetable with lemon juice or vinaigrette, and serve it hot or cold. Like celery, cardoon is very low in calories, only 32 per cup. However, for a vegetable it is rather high in sodium; 1 cup contains over 250 milligrams. It also supplies fair amounts of folate and magnesium.
Chinese broccoli (gai lan): Also known as Chinese kale, Chinese broccoli is longer, leafier, and more sharply flavored than common green broccoli. It is similar in flavor to broccoli rabe. It can have clusters of white flowers and be eaten in its entirety.
Chinese celery: Also called Asian celery, this tall, skinny celery looks like a cross between parsley and celery. The stalks are fatter than parsley stalks and skinnier than celery stalks. It has a much more pronounced celery flavor than Pascal celery. Both the stems and leaves are used to add flavor to stir-fries and soups. Though it is difficult to find outside of Asian neighborhoods, this celery actually comes in a number of forms, mostly differing in stem and leaf color, from white to golden to deep green.
Chrysanthemum leaves: Called tung ho in Chinese and shungiku in Japanese, these Asian greens are used fresh in salads when the leaves are young and in stir-fries and soups. They have a spinach-like texture and earthy-floral flavor. The leaves are usually blanched to make them tenderer, and they are generally added to dishes at the last minute; overcooking will make them bitter.
Fiddleheads: A spring delicacy, fiddleheads are the young fronds of certain types of ferns. Although the word “fiddlehead” could refer to any fern shoots, only one variety, the ostrich fern, is considered edible. These tightly curled green shoots are picked before their leaves unfurl. Gathered from the wild and once available only in the areas where they grew, the highly perishable greens are now flown into city markets during their short season. Choose small, bright green, tightly coiled fiddleheads; they should still have their brown scales. Use them within a day or two of purchase. Rub off the brown scales, then wash the greens and blanch or steam them as you would asparagus. Fiddleheads are a quite decent source of beta carotene: 4 ounces (about 1 cup) have 2.5 milligrams, which is 23 percent of the recommended daily intake.
Hearts of palm: This delicate white vegetable comes from palmettos, small palm trees that grow mostly in Florida. Harvesting the heart, or terminal bud, often kills the plant. For this reason, it is an expensive food and some conservationists object to its use. The entire palm heart, weighing 2 to 3 pounds, is sometimes sold fresh in the United States. If you can find fresh palm heart, it will be husked and cut into cylinders. The layered, ivory-white flesh is firm and crisp and has the consistency of slightly soft coconut. However, you are much more likely to find canned hearts of palm, which are available in supermarkets. You can use either fresh or canned hearts of palm as is, without cooking. They are delicious cut into thin slices and tossed into a salad.
Lotus root: Once you’ve seen slices of lotus root in a dish, there’s no mistaking it for anything else. The large, sausage-shaped rhizome of an aquatic plant, lotus root is pierced with 10 air tunnels so that when cut crosswise, the white slices look something like snowflakes or strangely symmetrical rounds of Swiss cheese. The starchy yet crisp flesh is slightly sweet. It may be sliced or grated to use in salads, stir-fried, or cooked in soups or stews. Thin, lacy slices make an attractive garnish. Fresh lotus root needs to be peeled before cooking.
Nopales (cactus pads): The “leaves” of the Mexican prickly pear cactus, nopales are eaten as vegetables. Succulent yet crisp, they exude a sticky substance when cooked. Their delicate flavor resembles that of bell peppers or asparagus. Look for nopales in Mexican grocery stores and specialty produce markets. Choose small, bright-green pads that are resilient, not limp or dry. They will likely be de-spined or of a spineless variety, but you will still need to trim the “eyes” just in case there are any tiny prickers remaining. A vegetable peeler works well for this. Trim the outside edges of the pads as well. Steaming is one of the best ways to cook cactus pads. They can then be served with lemon juice as a vegetable side dish, or cooled and used in salads. You can also find canned nopales. Nopales are a good source of vitamin C. One cup cooked provides 16 percent of the RDA of vitamin C, as well as a good amount of potassium and magnesium.
Seabeans (sea asparagus, pousse-pierre, glasswort): Seabeans look like delicate green coral, with thin, jointed sprigs that are crisp and quite salty. This sea vegetable has been around for millennia. Ancient Greeks and Romans ate it in salads or steamed as a vegetable. And in Colonial America, it was called "chicken’s claws." Originally gathered in the wild, seabeans are now being commercially cultivated. The green itself can be eaten as a vegetable—though a salty one—and it has historically been used as a pickle. Wild seabeans are available in the summer months, but cultivated seabeans are available year round.
Seaweed: Consisting of long stems and frond-like leaves, the various types of seaweed, or sea vegetables, are large forms of algae. Fresh seaweed tastes rather like greens with an overlay of seawater flavor. Dried seaweed is commonly sold at Japanese grocery stores and health-food stores. Seaweeds have a naturally salty flavor from their high mineral content and are sometimes crumbled or shredded and used as a seasoning rather than served as a vegetable. A high percentage of the seaweed harvested in this country goes toward creating thickening and stabilizing agents for processed foods.
Of the dried seaweed, perhaps the type many Americans are most familiar with is nori, a dark green seaweed dried in square sheets and used to wrap sushi rolls. Nori is traditionally toasted over a flame or in an ungreased skillet before use. You can also buy nori that is already toasted. Both nori and laver, which the Irish (and Welsh) cook into flat cakes called laverbread, are actually the same plant. Kombu and wakame, popular foods in Japan, are types of kelp, a brown algae. The Japanese use kombu to make a flavorful broth, while wakame is cooked in soups or stir-fried and served over rice. Irish moss is red algae and the source of carrageenan, which is a common commercial thickening agent. The Scots collect a type of seaweed called dulse and make soup from it.
Seaweed is high in fiber, and some varieties are rich in vitamin C and beta carotene. But its greatest claim to fame is as a concentrated source of minerals, including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and iodine. However, you have to eat a good-sized serving—not just the tiny amount that’s wrapped around sushi—to get any significant benefit. Some types, such as kombu and wakame, are also high in sodium.
Tomatillo (husk tomato): Its name means “little tomato” in Spanish, and this small, round vegetable-fruit does look like a large green cherry tomato, but a tomato that’s enclosed in a papery light brown husk. Tomatillos' tart, lemony flavor contributes to Mexican salsa cruda and salsa verde. Fresh tomatillos can be found in some supermarkets and most Latin grocery stores. Select hard specimens that feel like unripe tomatoes, with clean, dry husks. Husk and wash off the stickiness that is usually found between the husk and the vegetable. Canned tomatillos are common in Latin stores, and can be used in many of the same ways as the fresh. In addition to the common green tomatillo, there are now a number of varieties available in farmers’ markets. Pineapple tomatillo is sweeter than other tomatillos, with overtones of pineapple. Purple tomatillo is a purple-skinned fruit, but with a flavor and flesh color similar to a regular tomatillo.
Two recipe ideas for Asian vegetables and nopales
- Make an Asian chopped salad: Toss together slivered hearts of palm, diced water chestnuts, and shredded napa cabbage. Make a salad dressing with olive oil, Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar, and grated fresh ginger.
- Cut steamed nopales into thin slices. Toss with lemon juice and some hot sauce. Place nopales, some crumbled goat cheese or feta, cooked black beans, and shredded lettuce in flour or corn tortillas and roll up.