Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra
- WHAT IS IT? – A leafy green with a thick stalk, and a member of the highly diverse wild cabbage group.
- SEASONALITY – Available year-round, but best during cooler seasons.
- FLAVOUR PROFILE – Mild; Green/Sweet/Bitter
- OTHER NAMES – Chinese broccoli, Chinese kale, Chinese mustard; kai-lan (another Cantonese transliterations used in English); jiè lán (Mandarin); cải làn or cải rổ (Vietnamese); khana (Thai).
BASICS & HOW-TO
As one of the better known Chinese green vegetables, gai lan is generally fairly easy to find at Asian grocery stores and well-stocked produce departments. Chinese grocery stores will generally carry standard gai lan, and may carry smaller varieties as well.
Gai lan is fairly easy to grow in a wide range of climate regions. Numerous seed companies offer multiple varieties for the home gardener.
Choose bright, fresh looking gai lan with vibrant green leaves and firm stems. Try to avoid stems that look particularly floppy or wilted. Avoid leaves with yellow edges – these will be bitter.
Gai lan stems frequently have small flower buds or yellow flowers on them – this is normal, and the flowers can be eaten (and are perfectly tasty). That being said, try to avoid any bunches with a very large number of older, fully opened flowers, as these stalks are more mature and may be bitter. Avoid stalks with very tall flower stalks or with seed pods – these plants have bolted and are likely to be tough and bitter.
In the event that your grocery store has mixed up or poorly labeled its greens, it’s worth noting that gai lan and choy sum bear some resemblance. Choy sum stems and leavers are longer, and the leaves are veinier. Gai lan tends to be somewhat squat by comparison, a little darker, and possess rounder leaves with fewer veins. Choy sum flowers are yellow, while gai lan flowers are white.
Gai lan is extremely easy to prepare. Simply wash the leaves and stems gently in cold water immediately before using.
Because the stalks are thick and cook much slower than the leaves, gai lan stems are usually chopped to balance the cooking time needs. For recipes that call for large pieces, the stalks can be cut into one or two pieces lengthwise, leaving the leaves attached or removing them and cooking them separately. For recipes that call for small pieces (e.g. fried rice), the stem can be cut into small thin rounds.
When cooking gai lan, you’ll want to take into account the thickness of the stalks and the thin, quick-cooking leaves. If you don’t separate or cut the stems to make thinner pieces, you’ll overcook the leaves before they’re finished. If you’re chopping the gailan into small pieces, simply separate the stems and the leaves and add the leaves to the dish later. If you want to leave the gai lan more or less intact, one of the best cooking involves slicing the stems the long way into two or three pieces with leaves intact at the end, then cooking over very high heat (e.g. stir frying). In general, shorter cooking times are better. Methods like blanching or boiling, either on their own or before stir frying, will often yield good results. Braising tends to yield good results as well.
Unless you plan to use it very soon, gai lan should be stored unwashed in the crisper section of a refrigerator, ideally in an open or breathable plastic bag. It will keep for 4-7 days, depending on how fresh it was at the outset.
If you have excess gai lan you can clean, chop, and blanch it for 2 minutes (longer if the stems are left in larger pieces), dunk it in very cold water, then drain and immediately freeze. It will freeze well for a year.
If you’re looking for a similar texture but a different flavour, choy sum (yau choy) is prepared and cooked in a very similar fashion.
Gai lan is a most often used in East Asian food, though it is versatile enough to be used in any number of dishes and cuisines. It’s flavour, though quite pleasant, is strong enough to make gai lan something of a featured element, either on its own or paired with a flavourful protein. It is generally used cooked, and often stir-fried or blanched. While its usage in Asian food dominates, it can effectively be used the same way that broccoli can.
Because gai lan has a strong flavour on its own, it tends to be paired with other strong flavours. Savoury sauces (e.g. oyster sauce) are quite popular, as are garlic, ginger, and strong spices like black or Sichuan pepper. Beef and other red meats are generally more popular partners than mild proteins like chicken, fish, or tofu. That being said, gai lan can be useful for adding flavour, texture, and dimension to a dish that might otherwise be somewhat bland. In this way, it can help ‘rescue’ an overly mild protein (e.g. some white fish) and keep the cooking sauce from being the only flavour element present. If gai lan is being used as the central element in a dish, it works well with mild starchy elements like pasta or rice, and with fats like oil, butter, or cream. A small amount of sugar is commonly added to gai lan dishes as a foil against the slight bitterness.
Most gai lan tends to be about 20 cm (8 inches) long, but small, tender ‘baby’ gai lan may be found in some Chinese grocery stores. Like other ‘baby’ greens, these tend to be a little milder, softer, and quicker to cook.
There are very attractive purple-stemmed gai lan varieties grown, though these are not commonly found in stores. Check farmers markets, or look for a good quality seed company and grow your own. The purple varieties do not differ markedly in taste from the green ones.
To see all the diversivore recipes using gai lan, click the navigation bar at the top of the page, or simply follow this link.
Gai Lan is extremely high in Vitamin A and Vitamin C, and low in calories.
There is no GM gai lan in the food supply.
Gai lan is a member of the family Brassicaceae (the cabbage and mustard family), a group often referred to as the cruciferous vegetables. Members of this family contains chemical components called glucosinolates, which are responsible for giving these plants their distinctive, pungent scent. These compounds have interesting effects in the human body. At normal levels (i.e. those achieved by consuming cruciferous vegetables as part of a balanced, vegetable-rich diet) they are believed to have some cancer-protective benefits. At unusually high levels (i.e. those achieved by eating extreme quantities of raw cruciferous vegetables, on the order of kilograms per day , glucosinolates can interfere with thyroid function, causing serious illness or even death. It is worth noting that including gai lan or any other cruciferous vegetable in a normal, balanced diet is far more likely to have positive health benefits than negative ones. If you have a thyroid condition and you have any questions about eating gai lan or other cruciferous vegetables, consult with a medical professional.