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Beyond broccoli: A guide to fresh Asian produce

Ever marvelled at the wonderful array of fruit and veges at the Asian supermarket and wondered what they were and what you could do with them? Nutritionist Laura Tari takes us on a virtual tour, from the hairy melons to the kumara leaves.

If you look past the capsicums and carrots, you’ll find an increasingly wide range of Asian vegetables on offer in New Zealand. These are a fantastic way to add variety, taste and nutrition to our diets, and there’s an added bonus — the cost. Asian specialty stores and supermarkets offer quality produce at reasonable prices. You might be surprised at how easily these veges can make everyday family recipes more interesting. So go on, try some of this great-tasting Asian produce, when it’s in season.

Okra

Known for its use in southern US dishes such as gumbo, it is also popular in Asia, the West Indies, India and South America. Okra is a great addition to stews, curries and soups because of its natural thickening properties.

Choose fresh, small veges as the larger the pod, the tougher and stringier the flesh is. Wash it, trim the ends and use it whole in curries or stews or sliced in soups or stir-fries.

Okra is a good source of folate, vitamins C and K, magnesium and fibre. It also provides phytonutrients such as carotenoids and flavonoids.

Choy sum

This leafy green vegetable is commonly used in Asian cooking. It is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, and also delivers calcium.

It is often mistaken for bok choy, however choy sum has longer thinner stalks and distinct little yellow flowers. Both the stalks and the leaves can be eaten and have a mild, mustard-like flavour. Choy sum can be served whole as a side dish, blanched or steamed with a dash of soy sauce, oyster sauce or hoisin sauce, added whole to noodle broth soups or sliced and put into stir-fries.

Kumara leaves

The tuber is a staple in the Kiwi diet, but many people don’t know that kumara leaves can also be eaten. In Asian cooking, they are added to stews and soups, especially noodle-based soups.

Choko

This pear-like vegetable grows on a vine and can sometimes be mistaken for a weed growing over the garden fence. It is low in kilojoules.

Chokos have a mild flavour, often compared to marrow or courgettes, with a similar texture. In Asian cooking, chokos are traditionally sliced for stir-fries and chopped in big chunks for soups. They can also be blended in soups, diced and served with a white béchamel sauce, added to pasta sauce, halved and stuffed or added to casseroles. They can also be used as a base ingredient for relishes, pickles or jams and even in desserts.

Both the skin and seeds can be eaten, but with bigger vegetables it is sometimes better to peel and deseed them before cooking.

Bitter melon

There are many traditional methods to reduce the bitterness of this fruit, such as soaking in cold water for 20-30 minutes, blanching in boiling water or boiling in salted water for 5-10 minutes, then discarding the water.

Look for fresh, bright fruit with as few blemishes as possible as this also helps reduce the bitterness. Once treated, bitter melon can be served cold as part of an Asian salad or chopped and added to stir-fries or soups.

Traditionally, it is served stir-fried with egg.

Bitter melon is a source of fibre, vitamin C and folate and is very low in kilojoules.

Chinese yams

These popular Asian vegetables are similar to kumara and are a source of carbohydrate, fibre, B vitamins and potassium.

Peeled and cooked they can be added to a variety of dishes. The Chinese often serve them cooked in large chunks in soup, or made into porridge. They can also be grated and added to stir-fries or casseroles.

Celtuce

Only the stalk and root of this large green vegetable is eaten, not the leaves. It has a mild flavour and a crisp texture. If eating raw, you just need to peel or slice off the outer skin and remove the leaves, then add grated or diced to salads. It can also be sliced (with outer skin removed) and sautéed or added to stir-fries.

Chinese turnip

Also known as daikon, Chinese turnip is similar to radish and is eaten cooked or raw. It can be grated or diced and added to salads, chopped and put into soups, finely sliced in stir–fries or steamed in chunks and served with rice and Chinese sausage.

Chinese turnips are a low-energy food due to their high water content. In Japanese cuisine they’re traditionally served raw and grated.

Yellow chives

With a subtle onion flavour, yellow chives have many uses and can be substituted for regular chives in most dishes. In Asian cooking they’re used in stir-fries, soups and casseroles, added to egg and dumpling dishes in place of onion, or chopped and added fresh to sandwiches, muffins, scones, quiches or pizza.

Milder and sweeter than plain chives, these are low in kilojoules.

Hairy melons

Named because of their fuzzy appearance on the inside, these melons have many other monikers — winter melon, white gourd or winter gourd.

The young melons are sweet, but lose this as they mature and end up with a bland taste, much like cucumber. They can be steamed or added to stir-fries and soups. Hairy melons are a low kilojoule food but do add some B vitamins and fibre.

First published: Sep 2015



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