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Getting to Know Asian Vegetables

You see them at the market, you eat them in restaurants—now here are some tempting ways to cook them

Fine Cooking Issue 84
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Stir-Fried Snow Peas with Shiitakes and Ginger

Last year, several hours after a hurricane warning, a trip to the market revealed what people buy when confronted with the prospect of weathering several days without grocery shopping. The milk, bread, and eggs were nearly gone, as were the broccoli, carrots, and lettuces. There was even a hefty dent in the rutabagas. But the bok choys, napa cabbages, snow peas, and Japanese eggplant were nearly untouched. They lay in their neat bins, ready to endure the storm alone. And when I reached for a bunch of plump baby bok choy, I noticed a few curious looks. A couple of shoppers with dinner on their minds even asked me how I was going to prepare it.

It seems to me that while most home cooks have seen several varieties of Asian vegetables in grocery stores, they’re often uncomfortable buying them because they’re not sure how to cook them. But these lovely vegetables are actually very easy to cook, even with no special knowledge of Asian cuisines. It’s just a matter of getting acquainted with their flavors and with the ingredients that enhance them, and finding the cooking methods that work best for each one. Generally, I prefer simple preparations that allow the vegetables’ pure flavor to shine, as in the recipes that follow. Once you try them, I’m sure that you, too, will be inspired to add these often overlooked vegetables to your repertoire.

Bok choy

(and baby bok choy) has a mild, sweet cabbagy flavor and a soft crunch. It has a gentle bitterness that stands up to strong, rich flavors.

Shopping & prepping

Look for tight, unwilted heads ranging from bright green to dark green, with no signs of yellowing or drying. Wash bok choy well. You can leave baby bok choy whole or cut it in half, but cut larger bok choy into pieces for stir-frying.

Flavor partners

Bok choy harmonizes with assertive flavors like sesame, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, oyster sauce, chiles, and mushrooms.

Best cooking methods

Bok choy is excellent steamed, quick-braised, and stir-fried. Its chubby, spoon-shaped stalks capture sauces, making it a great last-minute addition to rich stews.


My favorite way of cooking bok choy is to quickly sauté it in hot oil flavored with a little garlic or ginger and then briefly braise it in broth until just tender. I also like to add it to pork shoulder that’s been slow-braised with soy sauce, a little sugar, and star anise.

Japanese eggplant

is sweet and rich, with tender skin and a soft, creamy flesh. It’s less bitter than large globe eggplant, so it doesn’t need to be salted before cooking. Also, because this skinny variety is small and firm, it cooks faster and doesn’t need as much oil as larger eggplants.

Shopping & prepping

Select firm, purple-black, shiny fruits with no soft or brown spots. Peeling is optional, and you can cut it almost any way you want: sliced, diced, or halved.

Flavor partners

It goes well with basil, mint, garlic, lime, chiles, miso, sesame, peanuts, red curry, vinegar, and honey.

Best cooking methods

Japanese eggplant is great roasted, grilled, steamed, or added to stews.


Spread butter and grated Parmigiano on halved Japanese eggplant before roasting. Or drizzle steamed eggplant with a salsa verde of chopped parsley, capers, lemon juice, and olive oil.

Napa cabbage

Napa Cabbage has ruffled, light-green leaves that are as tender as lettuce and crunchy white stems that are similar in texture to green cabbage.

Shopping & prepping

Look for medium-size cabbages that feel heavy for their size and have plenty of light-green leaves. You can cut napa cabbage any way you would cut green cabbage.

Flavor partners

Napa’s delicate floral spiciness pairs well with garlic, chives, mushrooms, carrots, radishes, ginger, and cured meats, such as bacon, prosciutto, speck, and even prepared duck confit.

Best cooking methods

Napa cabbage is juicy and sweet when braised, sautéed, or stir-fried, but it’s equally good raw in salads or slaws.


I like to slice it thinly and put together either a slaw with sliced radishes, lime juice, and a little sugar, or a fresh salad with apples and a vinaigrette made with chives and apple-cider vinegar.

Snow peas

Snow peas have more real pea flavor and are often less starchy than sugar snaps. Popular in the 1970s, snow peas should be poised for a revival because of their fresh green crunch, versatility, and fast cooking time.

Shopping & prepping

Choose dark green, dense-looking peas with no signs of drying or cracking. Trim them by breaking off the stem end and pulling the string away from the pod.

Flavor partners

Snow peas partner well with scallions, toasted sesame seeds, ginger, shellfish, and rich nut oils.

Best cooking methods

Snow peas are good eaten raw, blanched, steamed, and stir-fried.


For a quick warm salad, briefly blanch and toss snow peas with a little vegetable oil, sea salt, and toasted sesame seeds. Or blanch them and toss them with good-quality butter and salt. I also like to quickly sauté them along with torn butter lettuce and scallions.


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