The island’s green vegetables are not only incredibly nutritious but also boast a diversity of flavors and textures.
STORY BY JEREMY OLIVIER, PHOTOS BY BRYN THOMAS
I recently had a heated conversation with a fellow expat in Taipei. I’d casually mentioned that one of my favorite things about Taiwan was the incredible variety of green leafy vegetables available at street markets and restaurants. In fact, I hadn’t been very good about eating my veggies before moving long-term to Taiwan in early 2013. That changed once I arrived and discovered just how much choice was available.
My friend, with whom I usually agree on issues of culinary significance, scoffed at my gushing admiration. She argued that the island’s abundance of cruciferous delights fell short of expectations because the leaves are “tough and stringy,” and they’re invariably overpackaged in plastic when bought at the supermarket. She added that one could regularly find small insects in the creases and crevices of the plants, even after they’d been cooked into dishes – an appetite killer for many.
I’m not convinced; a bit of dirt or the occasional tiny snail shell has yet to dampen my love for Taiwan’s vast fields of edible greens. So as I prepare this winter to round out my first decade of living on the island, I thought I’d put together a short list of some of my top produce picks that no veggie-lover should miss while in Taiwan.
Chinese water spinach
(空心菜, kongxin cai)
The Chinese name for ipomoea aquatica literally translates as “hollow-heart vegetable,” so named for the hollow stems that comprise most of the edible part of this plant. While the English name carries the descriptor “Chinese,” water spinach can be found in dishes across East, Southeast, and South Asia. In Taiwan, water spinach (or kongxin cai in Mandarin) is often stir-fried with oil, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger when served on its own. It can also be prepared with thin slices of beef or mutton and marinated and fried in savory shacha sauce (also known as Chinese barbecue sauce).
Texturally divine, with just the right amount of crunch, kongxin cai is inexpensive and abundantly available, making it a healthy and cheap addition to virtually any meal. Just remember to bring some floss along when you plan to eat it, as the little flecks of plant matter easily get stuck between your teeth.
Sweet potato leaves
(地瓜葉, digua ye)
In my first year on the island I was shocked to learn that one of my favorite green vegetables in Taiwan was for a time regarded as a last resort for impoverished Taiwanese. Not only that, but these leaves that sprout from the top of the sweet potato plant were once mainly used as pig feed.
No matter, as the vegetable has come more into vogue here over the past decade. People have realized it’s not only delicious in a range of dishes, but it’s also packed with nutrients. Sweet potato leaves provide diners with an alphabet soup of vitamins, as well as essential minerals like sodium, potassium, zinc, magnesium, and manganese. So the next time you pick up a bag of locally grown yams from your nearby market, consider also grabbing the part of the plant that grows above the ground!
Crested floating heart
Admittedly this one is not a leaf at all, but rather the stringy stem of the nymphoides hydrophylla, a flowering plant cultivated in small ponds mainly in southern Taiwan. Also known as “white water snowflake” for the delicate white flowers that bloom on the water’s surface, shuilian can be purchased in thick bundles at a traditional market.
The vegetable tastes wonderful stir-fried with oil, a bit of chopped garlic, some mushrooms, and a few slices of spicy red pepper. It also goes well with a bit of shredded pork and is a favorite in both milky and spicy hotpot broths when the weather starts to cool. Meinong, a small Hakka village around an hour’s drive south of Kaohsiung, is famous for growing this delightfully crunchy plant.
Taiwanese bok choy
(台灣小白菜, taiwan xiao bai cai)
Lighter in color and thinner in texture than the common dark green variety, Taiwanese bok choy features in many soup dishes in Taiwan. It’s also nutrient-dense and a key source of vitamins A and C, as well as potassium, magnesium, B6, and iron, among others. Visitors to the National Palace Museum will recognize it as the subject of the ornate and well-publicized “jade cabbage” carving, which hordes of tourists jostle over for a chance to see in person. In the past I would often go for the smaller baby bok choy to complement homemade meals, but these days I find myself seeking out Taiwan’s specialty whenever I can.
(龍鬚菜, long xu cai)
The Chinese term for this unique green literally translates as “dragon’s beard vegetable.” Just one look at the sechium edule and you can see why. Emerging from the central stalks are innumerable stringy, tangled tendrils of shoots and leaves. Not unique to Taiwan, this plant is also found throughout Central and South America.
Across the Pacific, chayote is used both as an ingredient in cooked dishes and prepared as a medicinal tea shown to reduce inflammation and treat a host of ailments. In Asia, it is often served boiled as a side dish, with its mild, semi-sweet flavor complemented by a dash of sesame salad dressing.
(A 菜, a cai)
I added this one to the list not so much because it’s a great vegetable – though it is – but because I love the name. What other natural food product in Taiwan has a letter of the Roman alphabet in its moniker? A small secret for the uninitiated: “A菜” is in fact just the Hokkien pidgin term for a local variety of lactuca sativa, or lettuce. It was introduced to Taiwanese agriculture during the Japanese colonial period, in the earlier half of the 20th century, and it grows throughout the year along Taiwan’s central coasts.
Almost any preparation method for A-choy yields great results. I’ve discovered it has a bit of a soft, silky texture when boiled or blanched. And like all the other vegetables on this list, it’s excellent when fried in a wok with a bit of soy sauce and rice wine.
(高麗菜, gaoli cai)
This is the granddaddy of all Taiwan’s green vegetables, and you’d have to try pretty hard not to eat some gaoli cai while visiting the island. Most stir-fry restaurants carry it as their main green. And almost every bento lunchbox I’ve ever bought here has contained a liberal serving of what is also called “flat cabbage” in the West.
Unless you count the big scoops of coleslaw that inevitably accompanied occasional meals of Texas barbecue, I must admit that cabbage was never really part of my diet before I left my childhood home in the U.S. But now it’s one of my main sources of fiber and vitamin C.
Where I really fell in love with gaoli cai was at an open-air Indigenous restaurant situated high up in the central mountains of Nantou County. It was during my first visit to Taiwan in 2011. As I sat eating a plate of fresh cabbage with some new friends, we looked out at the mountain vista, where the vegetables were grown in neat rows on the hillsides. It was just the beginning of a lifelong affinity for one of Taiwan’s natural treasures.