Asian Vegetables

Twelve great Asian vegetables.

November 30, 2010

With the growing popularity of Thai, Korean, and Japanese cuisine, and the increasing sophistication of Chinese cuisine in North America, gardeners are becoming familiar with vegetables such as edamame, daikon, and bitter melon that were unknown outside of specialty markets not too long ago. Asian vegetables are not just delicious; many, like yard-long (asparagus) beans and winged beans, are fun to grow and share, too.

Some Asian vegetables, including Asian melons, eggplant, cucumbers, and tomatoes, are simply oriental cultivars of common veggies and are grown like any other cultivar of their species. You can find growing instructions for them in the basic vegetable entries throughout this encyclopedia.


To enjoy growing some of the more unusual Asian vegetables in your garden, follow the links below. You can find a wide selection of Asian vegetable seeds from many mail-order seed suppliers.

Bitter Melon
(Momordica charantia) Cucurbitaceae; also called bitter cucumber and balsam melon.

  • Vigorous cucumber-like vines produce green, white, or orange fruits that resemble wrinkled, bumpy, or warty cucumbers.
  • Plants need warm weather, full sun, and plenty of moisture. Soak seed for 24 hours before planting indoors to transplant later, or direct-seed outdoors when the soil is warm. Plants need the same care as cucumbers, and they respond well to trellising.
  • Depending on the cultivar, bitter melons range from quite bitter ('Siamese Bitter Cucumber') to mild ('Chinese Long White'). All types are used extensively in stir-fries and other Asian dishes.

Bok Choy
(Brassica rapa) Brassicaceae; also called bok choi and pak choi.

  • Attractive cabbage relatives with long, thick white stems and dark green leaves. Leaves and stems are used fresh and cooked.
  • Sow seed in early spring or fall; grow like cabbage. Space plants 8–12 in. apart in the row and 12 in. between rows. Harvest entire small heads or larger individual leaves.
  • Young bok choy is delicious in salads, sautèed, or stir-fried. Chopped bok choy leaves are excellent additions to Chinese dishes.

Chinese Okra
(Luffa acutangula and L. aegyptiaca) Cucurbitaceae; also known as luffa (loofah) and sponge gourd.

  • Young fruit, leaves, blossoms, and seeds have culinary value. Mature fruits are dried and skinned to make sponges.
  • Start seed indoors and transplant outdoors when frost danger has passed. Grow as you would other gourds. Harvest fruit when 6 in. long for eating. For sponges, allow to mature and dry on vines.
  • Immature fruits ("okra") are sweet. Use like zucchini. Can also be sliced and fried like okra, which, along with the young fruits' appearance, gives the plant its name. Luffa sponges are valued for bathing and general cleaning.

(Raphanus sativus var. longipinnatus) Brassicaceae; also called Chinese radish.

  • Distinctively torpedo-shaped radishes in white and a wide variety of colors. Larger cultivars can reach 2 ft long and 3 in. wide. The flesh has a crisp texture and flavor.
  • Sow seed in deep, rich soil and cultivate like a common radish. Space according to cultivar. Read catalog or seed packet for best season to plant. Stores well.
  • Root adds mildly spicy flavor to salads, Chinese sauces, and stir-fried seafood. Traditionally diced and made into a sweet pickle in Korea. Steam peppery leaves or add to clear soup.

(Glycine max) Fabaceae; also called green soybeans.

  • Bushy plants bear short, hairy green pods. Harvested and eaten when both pods and beans are still bright green but pods have filled out.
  • Sow seed 1–2 in. deep in warm soil and full sun; cultivate like a bush bean. Space 6–8 in. apart.
  • Traditionally boiled and served salted in the pod as an appetizer; split the pods and eat the beans, discarding the pods. Beans can also be shelled and steamed or boiled. Good protein source.

Long Bean
(Vigna unguiculata) Fabaceae; also called yard-long and asparagus beans.

  • Pods can reach 38 in. long and are stringless and tender. Red or green pods are borne on 8–10 ft vines.
  • Sow seed 1–2 in. deep and 4–6 in. apart after soil has warmed. Provide strong, tall trellises or tepees. Heat and drought tolerant.
  • Luscious flavor is more like an asparagus–bean cross than pure green bean. Best sautèed or stir-fried rather than boiled or steamed.

(Brassica juncea var. japonica) Brassicaceae; known as Japanese greens in China.

  • Attractive, compact green plant matures in 35 days, tolerates heat, and is easy to grow. Serrated leaves are used fresh and cooked.
  • Sow seed in early spring; grow like spinach. Space plants 6 in. apart in the row and 8–10 in. between rows. Make successive plantings. Harvest leaves or entire plant.
  • Blend with lettuce and crisp vegetables for an unusual, nutritious salad. Stir-fry with Asian vegetables. Add to cream and clear soups for flavor and texture.

Napa Cabbage

  • A compact, delicately flavored cabbage, also known as michihli, tientsin, and Chinese celery cabbage. Savoyed green leaves on light green stalks reach 13–16 in.
  • Grow like other coolweather cabbage. Excellent fall crop. Space 1–1? ft between rows. Keep well watered. Matures in 75 days.
  • Use in coleslaw or stirfry for a crisp texture. Traditionally pickled, as in kimchee. Will store 2–3 months in a cool environment.

Oriental Mustards
(Brassica juncea) Brassicaceae

  • Attractive red or green loose-leaf or heading mustards. Loose-leaf types mature in 45 days; heading mustards need 60–75 days. Plants tolerate heat and light frost, and they're easy to grow.
  • Direct-seed in early spring or fall. Space plants 6 in. apart in the row, thinning to 10 in.; use thinnings in salads and stir-fries. Leave 10–12 in. between rows.
  • Mustards are great for spicing up salads and stir-fries. Greens can also be sautèed, steamed, boiled, and added to soups and fried rice dishes. Heading types are excellent pickled.

(Chrysanthemum coronarium) Asteraceae; also known as edible chrysanthemum, and tong ho in Chinese.

  • Beautiful yellow single chrysanthemum flowers are edible, but the plant is grown primarily for the edible leaves.
  • Self-sowing annual. Sow seed in mid-spring; cover lightly with soil. Thin as needed, enjoying thinnings in dishes. Harvest individual leaves or entire plants as needed.
  • Enjoy leaves and flowers raw in salads, or stir-fry leaves with other Asian vegetables.

Winged Bean
(Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) Fabaceae

  • Vining plants produce bean pods with four winged edges.
  • Soak seed for 24 hours before planting. Plant outdoors after frost danger has passed and grow as you would other beans. Grow Thai winged bean in the South, Hunan winged bean in the North.
  • Cook leaves like spinach. Winged pods are delicious fresh or cooked and are high in protein. sautè pods and roots alone or stirfry with other Asian vegetables; also good in soup. Roots have a nutty flavor.

Winter Melon
(Benincasa hispida) Cucurbitaceae; also known as wax gourd, Chinese preserving melon, and white gourd.

  • The oblong melons are 10–12 in. long and weigh 10–15 lbs.
  • Start seed indoors and transplant outdoors when frost danger has passed. Grow as you would any vining melon.
  • Traditionally, the waxy rind is carved, and the melon hollowed out, then filled with vegetables, meat, and broth. It is steamed before serving.