Gai lan is a leafy green vegetable with slender stalks and tiny flowers that look a lot like the ones found on broccoli rabe. The leaves and stem have a vegetal, green flavor like broccoli, but with more bitterness.
If you don't have an Asian grocer nearby you may find it difficult to find this leafy vegetable. The good news is there are plenty of suitable gai lan substitutes, using fresh produce that's likely to be in a grocery store near you.
What can I use as a gai lan substitute in cooking?
To replace gai lan in your next dish the best options are broccoli rabe, choy sum, or broccolini. Other options like collard greens or bok choy are useful for replacing the leaves.
1. Broccoli rabe
Broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, is a similar vegetable to gai lan. It has a comparable crunchy stalk, large leaves, and tiny florets. You can use these ingredients in much the same way in cooking, perfect for stir-fries and sautés.
If you find gai lan too bitter, then you'll want to avoid broccoli rabe and choose another option from this list. This alternative is one of the most bitter foods you'll encounter, and many people find it too much for their taste buds.
Keep in mind that boiling rapini briefly before using it in a recipe will help to pacify the bitterness. A teaspoon of sugar or an Asian sauce like teriyaki or tonkatsu will also help combat the bitter notes.
2. Choy sum
Choy sum has a similar appearance to gai lan, with thin stems, leafy greens, and small yellow flowers. Both vegetables can be cooked similarly; a short burst of high-heat cooking will help them retain some crispy texture.
Choy sum is a little less bitter and has a more pronounced mustard-like, peppery flavor. Depending on the age of the plant, you may find choy sum has sweeter, juicier stems.
Broccolini looks like a cross between broccoli and gai lan. Its stems are slender with florets that are larger than broccolis. This means you can cook broccolini in much the same way you would gai lan. They both have stalks that cook quickly in stir-fries, unlike thick broccoli stems which require extra cooking.
A popular recipe in Chinese cuisine is gai lan with oyster sauce. To make this recipe without the original ingredient, broccolini is your best option. You get a little less bitterness from the dish, so you may want to skip the sugar which is often used to help balance the bitter greens.
Related reading: Oyster Vs Hoisin Sauce - do you know how they differ?
For a milder option, try using broccoli. This is another nutritional vegetable that will work in most recipes that call for gai lan. Most people will be familiar with the taste of this alternative and it's easy to find at the supermarket.
In addition to being milder, you'll also find broccoli doesn't have large leaves and its florets are the main part of the vegetable. Although different, broccoli won't be out of place in Asian dishes that use gai lan.
5. Collard greens
Collard greens have similar leaves to gai lan and are delicious steamed, sauteed, or stir-fried. They are well known for their bitter bite, which is stronger than that of gai lan.
Like broccoli rabe, you may find blanching the leaves before using them in a recipe will help reduce the intensity. Sauces and added sweetness will also help to counter collard greens.
Related reading: Check out our suggested dandelion green substitutes.
6. Bok choy
Bok choy, aka pak choy, is fairly common in the produce section of grocery stores. Its leaves are milder with white crunchy stalks that are juicier than gai lan. But, this substitute is a popular vegetable used in Asian cuisine and is versatile enough to fit into any gai lan recipe. Stir-fries, broth-based soups, and Asian salads are excellent choices if you have bok choy in the fridge.
Kale can be used as a replacement for gai lan if you're in a pinch. It doesn't have slender stems that will bring a crunchy element to the dish. More importantly, kale has a stronger flavor which many people find too intense.
To use kale in your next recipe, you'll find it works best in stir-fries or soups. If you love bitter, pungent food then use kale in similar quantities as you would use gai lan.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Eat Gai Lan Leaves?
Gai lan leaves are perfectly edible and are packed with nutritional goodness. In most recipes, it is best to add the leaves separately towards the end of cooking to allow extra time for the thicker stems to cook.
Are Gai Lan and Yu Choy Different?
Although gai lan and yu choy have a similar appearance and are related, they are different vegetables. Gai lan has thicker stalks and less peppery, mustardy flavor.
Can You Eat Gai Lan Flowers?
Gai lan Flowers make a healthy and delicious addition to recipes as well as adding a colorful visual element to the food. A plant with lots of flowers is a sign that the vegetable has matured; it is likely to have increased in bitterness and developed tough stems.
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Fast facts about gai lan
- Gai lan is also known as Chinese broccoli, gai gan, kai lan, and Chinese kale. It is a part of the Brassica oleracea family.
- The vegetable is similar to broccoli but has more leaves and a thinner edible stalk.
- The plant originated from the Mediterranean before being taken to China and grown extensively through Asia.
- Gai lan is excellent sautéed and served as a side dish with pork, poultry, or other meat dishes. The fresh greens help to brighten heavy meals.
While gai lan is a tasty Asian green, it isn’t always easy to find in stores. To replace this vegetable in a recipe use broccoli rabe, choy sum, or broccolini. Everyday broccoli has a different taste and texture, but it will still work fine in recipes calling for gai lan.