Chinese broccoli is a dark green leafy vegetable in the Brassica oleracea group, which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, and cauliflower. The plant goes by a number of aliases, many of them variations on gai lan, the Chinese name for the vegetable, such as gai lon, kat na, jie lan, and kai lan. The vegetable produces characteristic florets of flowers, much like broccoli, and the copious foliage of the plant is used as well. Asian markets often carry Chinese broccoli, and it is also relatively easy to grow at home.
All of the members of the Brassica oleracea group are technically the same species, but they have been bred for different traits. Some of them are cultivated for leafy green foliage, while others produce tightly furled heads of leaves, and others grow into large clustered florets. In all cases, the plants tend to have a peppery bite with a hint of sweetness, and they are used in a wide range of dishes all over the world. Chinese broccoli tends to be slightly more sweet than regular broccoli, with the hint of a bite in the aftertaste of the vegetable.
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In China, gai lan is used in stir fries, steamed in dumplings, and eaten fresh in green salads. The faint bitterness of the vegetable complements a wide range of flavors, especially in green or herb salads. It can also be used outside of Chinese cuisine, in much the same way that any other plants in the species would be. Like other dark leafy greens, Chinese broccoli has very high nutritional values, making it a great addition to most diets.
When seeking out Chinese broccoli in the store, look for crisp specimens without any sign of wilting, and no soft spots or marked discolorations. The vegetable can be stored under refrigeration for up to three days, loosely wrapped in plastic in the vegetable drawer. Always wash it before using, to remove dirt or compost which may have adhered to the leaves.
The vegetable grows best in temperate climates with cool summers and mild winters. In some regions, Chinese broccoli can be grown year round, while in others the plant will only produce in the summer. In all cases, it likes well fertilized soil with good drainage, and prefers to be kept moist and cool. Usually Chinese broccoli matures within 60 days of planting, and it should be eaten younger rather than older, since it can get bitter and woody. Some garden supplies sell seeds of several cultivars, many of which are custom-bred for specific climates.