When I think vegetable, Kailan or “Chinese Broccoli” is what comes to mind. It’s what I imagine mothers pointing at when they yell at their kids. It’s a sweet and slightly bitter big green leafy vegetable with strong crunchy stems that can be fibrous if too old. For me it’s kinda like a cross between kale and broccoli and better than either. Kailan has got 4 significant parts to it. There’s the leaves, the thin stems, the thicker base and sometimes there’s also yellow or white flowers. It’s a plant that’s common year round because it’s a hardy plant but it’s actually a cool season crop.

When I was young, all I ate were the leaves, which were sweet and easy to down. I wasn’t the biggest vegetable fan but I would go to town on kailan leaves. I’d pick the stems out and not eat them. As time passed and I got a little bit older, I started to enjoy the thin stems and then later the thicker base stems too. By the time I was rocking out to Oasis and Radiohead, I was a full fledged kailan lover. I had to have it like 2 or 3 times a week and my grandmother knew I preferred the younger, sweeter baby version of the vegetable as opposed to the big thick woody stuff that’s almost asparagus like at the stem. You can always just trim or peel the base away but it’s got nothing on the beautiful flavour and texture of perfectly cooked baby kailan.

More recently, I had some pickled kailan stem at Chairman Mao’s in Sydney and it was one of those things that blew my mind. I guess I didn’t think about it before but if you take the big thick stems that you’d normally chuck, slice them reasonably thinly and pickle them, you get a bit of magic from what would be compost. The pickling process evens out the texture of the stems and definitely improves the hard, woodiness it can have. It’s not going to take away the fibrous outer bits and ends so you’re going to waste something but a lot less.

You can have it so many ways too. Stir fried is generally the classic. With a simple bit of garlic, stock, salt and oil, you get a very natural flavour. With oyster sauce, the sweetness is amplified and the bitterness removed because it’s so salty. Stir fried with beef or pork and wilted through noodles, you get a variety of crunch and sweetness.

Kailan’s something that most Chinese people take for granted. It’s just a common vegetable and you’ll find it everywhere. But it’s fucking magic. The leaves wilt but retain a slight leatheriness that really goes well when you get a slick of oil on it. The stems stay crunchy for days unlike a lot of other similar leafy greens. You have a kale craze that I can somewhat understand but for me, kailan’s just got more things in it’s locker than kale. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe kailan is too ubiquitous and known but I’m pretty damn sure if it had a less Chinese name, it’d deserve a global craze too.

I saw a video of Rene Redzepi praising this Aussie stagier putting kale into a dessert and sorta making it work or at least being extremely brave but she would have knocked his socks off if she used kailan. I don’t recommend blending it into smoothies with a vitamix, you lose all the wonderful textures of the vegetable and you really need a little light cooking to temper the rawness in my opinion. Still, I like to toss it in my pastas, noodles, stir fries and everything really. Buerre noisette and some almonds? Thai Basil and chilli? It can probably go a lot more ways than the usual garlic / oyster etc. My dream is for chefs who’re not Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese/Malay to use kailan more. Apparently it was actually imported to China by the Portuguese so maybe there’s a start.

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