Foodstuff: Gai Lan

If you have ever been served a vegetable identified as ‘Choy Sum’ in a Chinese restaurant, perhaps served in oyster sauce or a sweetened soy as part of a Dim Sum meal, the chances are quite high that the vegetable was in fact the leafy green that is more properly known as ‘Gai Lan’. In this post, I will not only introduce you to this delicious foodstuff, but also include a recipe for one of its more common methods of preparation… 

Choy Sum is the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters,  菜心 (càixīn in Mandarin), which translate as ‘vegetable heart’. The name is not reserved for a particular vegetable, however, but can refer to several types of greens, especially the tender ‘heart’ of Bok Choy once the tougher, outer leaves are removed. Other green vegetables sometimes appear as ‘Choy Sum’ but Gai Lan appears this way more commonly than it does its by its own name. Indeed, when I purchased the bunch you see pictured above, that is how it was identified on the store label.

The Chinese name for the vegetable, 芥蘭, is properly pronounced ‘jièlán’ in Mandarin, but the Cantonese pronunciation ‘Gai Lan’ seems to be becoming more popular outside of Guangdong province (Canton), even in China. In western stores, the name ‘Gai Lan’ (or alternatively ‘Choy Sum’) appears with ever increasing frequency but it is also still sometimes referred to as ‘Chinese Broccoli’.  As a matter of fact, the ‘Beef with Broccoli and Oyster Sauce’ that is so ubiquitous on westernized Chinese restaurant menus also has its counterpart in China using Gai Lan where it appears as ‘芥蘭牛肉’.

In addition to being stir-fried with beef, Gai Lan also appears steamed or braised alone with a sweet-salty sauce, often with garlic as an additional fillip. This is a standard on Dim Sum menus but similar preparations also make a lovely side dish to other more complex preparations. In the recipe below, I use a two-step process that first tenderizes the vegetable through blanching before flash-frying it with flavoring agents…

The Ingredients

  • 1 bunch blanched Gai Lan (cut in half below the leaf portion)
  • 2 – 3 tbsp. Oyster Sauce diluted with an equal amount of water (or rice wine)
  • 1 – 2 tsp. sugar
  • 2 garlic cloves, sliced.

To blanch the Gai Lan, you can use the method I use for the Bok Choy recipe in my earlier post (omitting the baking soda, if desired). Blanching is not strictly necessary but it tenderizes the stalks nicely and reduces the amount of flash-frying time so that you don’t risk over cooking the leaves or introducing bitter tastes.

The Method

Heat your wok to high and add a splash of vegetable oil. As soon as the oil starts to smoke, add the stalk portions of the Gai Lan and stir-fry just until a few brown spots start to appear and then add the leafier portions and the garlic. As soon as the garlic is soft, throw in the sugar, then the oyster sauce blend and keep tossing until the liquid is reduced by about half. Plate and serve.

My wife and I have eaten this dish many times and, if you have eaten in a dim sum restaurant more than a few times, this will look very familiar to you. The thick slices of garlic are a bit of a non-standard addition but they really add to the dish in my opinion. Please give this a try…

7 thoughts on “Foodstuff: Gai Lan”

  1. From “The Wife”: The way my husband cooks this is EXCELLENT. I love this vegetable and have had it many times in chinese restaurants. His is easily the best I’ve ever had.

  2. Oooops … I just noticed the mistake iny my ingredient list… It calls for two or three tablespoons of water diluted with water DUH!! Should be Oyster sauce diluted with water. I am fixing the error 🙂

    1. Thank you … that was supposed to read ‘tsp.’ NOT ‘tbsp.’ and has been changed. If this amount still strikes you as a lot, I will say that I like a good amount of sweetness to offset the bitterness of gai lan …. you can certainly use less 🙂

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