Gai lan or Chinese Broccoli

Gai lan is the Cantonese name for Chinese broccoli, although it is sometimes called Chinese kale. The literal translation for gai lan is “mustard orchid.” 

It has been an extra long year of uncertainty, worry and heartache in our home. We are adjusting, slowly but surely, finding our footing and learning a new dance, though I find my step is still a bit slow or slightly awkward. I thank all of you who have voiced your concern and offered advice and kind words during the past twelve months. I am grateful for your warm and supportive responses to my last column.

Auntie’s death, so close to Dad’s, occurred too close to another “anniversary” in my life, the death of my husband, who in an odd twist of fate lost his battle with inoperable pancreatic cancer on our wedding anniversary. Whew. Talk about spilling blood on the page. But old wounds have resurfaced to join hands with new ones, causing me anxiety, triggered by matters small and large, especially whenever I open up a newspaper or catch a televised news report.

I found a simple source of comfort when I read a column that Sam Sifton, food columnist for the New York Times, wrote several weeks ago: “The news of the world may be grim running to grimmer, but still we make time to cook, hoping that the practice can bring a balm to wounded souls.”

So I have cooked – even more than usual. And it helped. I experimented with new recipes and returned to old favorites. I  also remained mindful and grateful that I had food to cook and a home in which I could serve it to my family.

Another unexpected healing gift was the return of the Thursday Night Market Place, which transforms a small portion of our town to a garden of joyful abundance of tastes and textures, and visions and scents that nourish our senses even before the cooking begins. During the first Market Place, as I approached vegetable vendors, I felt almost giddy with happiness as I oohed and aahed over glistening berries and fragrant herbs and as I visited table after table covered with verdant vegetables, I was especially delighted by all the Asian produce I look forward to each year.

I think the first night at the Market Place was healing for Mom too. She hadn’t been able to attend most of the Market last year, choosing after Dad’s stroke, to spend most of her evenings with him. We attended the first Market at different times and she called me several times to make sure we didn’t duplicate our purchases. I heard her joyful excitement with the first phone call.

“There’s gai lan tonight! Did you get any? Should I buy gai lan?”

I assured her that I had picked out fruit and vegetables only for the Tea Room and she should purchase whatever she wanted, that nothing would go to waste. I smiled as I hung up, knowing I had five bunches of gai lan nestled in my bag. I wasn’t worried about having too much. This is one of our favorite vegetables.

Gai lan is the Cantonese name for Chinese broccoli, although it is sometimes called Chinese kale. The literal translation for gai lan is “mustard orchid.” Gai lan has very little resemblance to Western broccoli. Rather this leafy plant has glossy, deep green leaves with smooth, round stems and small white flowers.

A popular vegetable on dim sum menus, gai lan is usually prepared by blanching or steaming and served with a drizzle of oyster sauce and toasted sesame oil. That’s how we prepared the gai lan we purchased at the first Thursday Night Market Place, and we ate every bite, nothing went to waste, and I felt a lightness to my step as I cleared away the dishes, a bit more security in the new dance that has evolved from challenging life changes and loss.

This week I’m sharing an easy home-style recipe for gai lan. This delicious vegetable is also available in Asian grocery stores year round. In many Chinese recipes, the garlic and ginger used to infuse the oil with flavor, are removed before adding the vegetable. But at home, we leave them in the finished dish because we love to nibble on the garlic and ginger. This is such a tasty recipe, I’m sure nothing will go to waste in your home either.

Arianne Wing is the co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots,” and co-operator of the L.T. Sue Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She may be reached at ariannewing@gmail.com

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