Chinese Broccoli with Oyster sauce, Tian Sing Chinese Restaurant 天成酒家, San Francisco

12 Interesting Facts About Chinese Broccoli

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Chinese broccoli, also known as Chinese kale or gai lan, is a nutritious green vegetable that is popular in Chinese cuisine. With its slender stems and dark green leaves, it looks similar to broccoli but has a distinct flavor and texture all its own.

Read on to learn 12 fascinating facts about this healthy, delicious veggie!

1. It’s Been Cultivated for Over 2,000 Years

Chinese broccoli has a very long history of cultivation in China, over 2,000 years! Historical records show it was grown during the Han Dynasty and the breeding of varieties continues today. The longtime presence in Asian agriculture is a testament to its versatility and nutrient value.

2. It’s Nutritionally Dense

One cup of chopped Chinese broccoli contains only 20 calories but packs a nutritious punch. It provides a day’s worth of vitamins K and C, plus folate, vitamin A, iron, and calcium. The green leaves and stems also deliver fiber, protein, magnesium, potassium, manganese, and antioxidants.

3. There Are Many Varieties

Facts About Chinese Broccoli

Hundreds of cultivars of Chinese broccoli have been developed over the millennia. While mainly classified by growing region, varieties can have diverse shapes, sizes, and flavors. Hybrid broccoli crosses with gai lan are also common. Some popular types are Canton dwarf, White flowering, and Early season.

4. It Has Several Names

This vegetable goes by many aliases, including gai lan, kai-lan, Chinese kale, celery mustard, and small cabbage. The Cantonese name “gai lan” means “mustard green” and is the most universally used internationally. Regional Chinese names translate to “vegetable lettuce” or “leaf vegetable” based on looks.

5. The Flavor is Unique

While Chinese broccoli resembles its western namesake, the flavor is entirely different. It has an earthy, aromatic taste closer to bok choy than broccoli. The stems are crisp and juicy, while leaves taste more bitter. Both raw and cooked gai lan have a fresh, pleasing flavor profile.

6. It’s Very Fast Growing

A major plus for gardeners, Chinese broccoli reaches maturity quickly at 50-60 days. The fast-growing nature allows multiple crop cycles per season. Even just one productive plant can supply a fresh, regular harvest. This versatility made it a staple for ancient Chinese farmers.

7. Asia Loves It Stir-Fried

Across China, Thailand, and Vietnam, the most popular preparation is stir-frying. The high heat sears the vegetables perfectly while retaining crunch and color. Quick stir-fries maintain the crisp-tender texture and bring out Gai Lan’s desirable flavors.

8. It’s Used in Many Chinese Dishes

Facts About Chinese Broccoli

In Chinese cuisine, gai lan beautifully balances complex layers of flavor. It often appears in soups, seafood dishes, meat combinations, noodles, and dumplings. Familiar pairings include oyster sauce, ginger, garlic, fermented tofu, and smoked meats. Blanching before stir-frying or slow braising is common.

9. It Has Health Benefits Galore

Low in calories and loaded with vitamins and minerals, Chinese broccoli is a nutrition all-star. Among its many benefits are boosting immunity, improving digestion and eye health, protecting the heart, building strong bones, preventing anemia, and fighting inflammation. It may also lower cancer risk.

10. Tea Can Be Made From Leaves

In parts of rural China, the large leaves of gai lan are dried and brewed into a medicinal tea. As a vitamin cocktail with antioxidants, the infusion is consumed to reduce inflammation or high blood pressure. It has an earthy, bitter taste reminiscent of the fresh vegetable.

11. Broccoli and Gai Lan Differ Genetically

Despite a similar appearance, genetic analysis reveals Chinese kale is closer related to turnips or mizuna. Cultivated broccoli descends from ancient wild cabbage in the Mediterranean. Over time, independent breeding created two genetically distinct vegetables that converged into comparable forms.

12. It Can Bolt in Hot Weather

Gardeners need to watch out for bolting with Chinese broccoli. Too much heat and sunlight exposure prompts flowers to develop quickly from the stem shoots. While the plant becomes bitter at this stage, harvested leaves may still be alright to eat if young enough. Provide shade cloth or choose resistant varieties in hotter zones.

Key Takeaways on Chinese Broccoli

  • Cultivated in China for over 2,000 years and renowned for its versatility
  • Very fast-growing green that produces multiple crops per season
  • Delivers an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants
  • Has a signature earthy, aromatic flavor entirely unlike western broccoli
  • Popularly stir-fried but also used in many Chinese dishes
  • May provide a range of potential health benefits, from boosting immunity to anti-cancer effects
  • Can bolt quickly in hot weather unlike slower-growing broccoli relatives

Frequently Asked Questions

What does Chinese broccoli taste like?

Chinese broccoli has an earthy, aromatic flavor, similar to bok choy but more bitter. Its taste is unique and much different than standard broccoli. The crisp stems and deep green leaves contribute to a balanced, pleasing profile.

Is gai lan the same as broccoli?

No. While Chinese broccoli resembles its western namesake, they come from different genus/species. Broccoli descends from Mediterranean wild cabbage while gai lan relates closer to Asian greens like turnips. They were bred independently over centuries into comparable shapes.

How do you grow Chinese broccoli?

Gai lan thrives with full sun but appreciates some afternoon shade in hot zones. Amend soil with compost or fertilizer high in nitrogen. Sow seeds 1⁄4 inch deep in early spring or fall, harvest leaves and shoots when young and tender. Grow as spring/fall crop in cool weather as heat causes bolting.

Can you substitute Chinese broccoli for regular broccoli?

Most recipes specify one variety, but in some cases, gai lan can substitute for standard broccoli and vice versa. Cook times may vary slightly. Sauteeing, steaming, or quick stir-frying better retains the crisp nature desired for Chinese broccoli dishes.

Is Chinese broccoli better raw or cooked?

Both raw and cooked preparations have merits. Many enjoy the fresh, crisp texture and flavors of raw gai lan as a salad or slaw. Light cooking by blanching, steaming, or stir-frying better balances bitterness and brings out nutty essence. Overcooking should be avoided.

What nutrients does Chinese broccoli contain?

Excellent source of vitamins K, C, A, B folate, plus minerals like iron, calcium, potassium, and manganese. Also fiber, antioxidants, and protein. Nutritionally dense with just 20 calories per cup. May provide anti-inflammatory and other health benefits.


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