Also gai lan, kaii laan, jie lan and variations (Chinese)
Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale is not broccoli or kale as we know them, nor is it truly Chinese in origin. This handsome vegetable is a species apart—and individually, distinctly delicious. And while we are on the subject of misleading names, if you have tasted Broccolini (Asparation), the diminutive offspring of Chinese and standard broccolis, you will recognize its Chinese parent in the similarly smooth, straight, waxy stems and inimitable juicy crunch.
Among the many flowering brassicas that bloom in Oriental markets, this one can be identified by its white buds (although I have read of yellow-flowering types, I have seen only white); by its round, solid jade stems, like narrow broccoli stalks; and by its slightly leathery, decidedly collard-like leaves. The leaves have an assertive collard flavor, but the meaty succulent stalks suggest the freshest, sweetest kohlrabi and broccoli. When small, the raw buds—sweet, with a cabbagey kick—are delightful in salad.
Brassica experts bump up against a Great Wall when it comes to the origins of Chinese kale. About all they agree on is summarized in these observations by Joy Larkcom, a British authority on Oriental vegetables: “It probably originated in the Mediterranean, possibly sharing a common ancestor with European calabrese [broccoli]. Botanically, it is very close to the famous Portuguese ‘Tronchuda’ cabbage. It was introduced to China in ancient times.”
As a culinary sleuth, what I find most mystifying is that—as far as I can determine—it did not travel beyond China. How could such a hardy, handy vegetable not move around? Its nature seems just as well suited to Italian, Spanish, and Thai dishes as to Chinese. I think I have seen it in other countries. I think I have read about it in non-Chinese texts. Yet each time I imagine I’ve found a path, I run up against the Wall. I can find nothing outside China—nor can the British plant breeder Peter Crisp, a Brassica specialist who also expresses frustration with this seemingly pursuable subject.
It is Chinese immigrants who planted gai lan in the United States and to whom we should be grateful for the presence of this lively, versatile green. With its clover color, juicy crunch, and bittersweet flavor, it is a refreshing addition to the home or foodservice repertoire—one of the most appealing of the brassica bunch.