Last Updated: May 13, 2020
With more and more people venturing out to supermarkets for a quick grocery run, many amateur cooks would be stumped by the variety of fresh produce available on sale today. You come in wanting to buy plain flour, but what is the difference between that and self-raising flour? Should you buy a Ratte potato or a Yukon Gold for that gratin? Why is everything so hard?
In this new series, Produce Explained, we want to make it easier for a newbie, wet behind the ear chef to boldly go to NTUC and really know the difference between produce that generally look the same—like a cheat sheet of sorts.
We kick this series off with leafy vegetables because that can be most confusing since everything looks green. If you’ve always wanted to know the difference between Kale and Kailan or Bak Choy and Chye Sim, then this guide has your name all over it. Let’s jump right in.
Chinese spinach is known as amaranth leaves, in Chinese, it is named 苋菜 (xian cai). I bet you didn’t know that Chinese spinach is often confused with water spinach and this is how to tell them apart. The latter has a distinctive long slender stem with oval-shaped leaves, while water spinach has hollow stems.
It is streaked throughout with shades of red and purple. The younger leaves of the Chinese spinach are tender when cooked and crunchy-fresh when used raw, while a mature plant tastes slightly fibrous with a hint of cleansing astringent bitterness.
Ideally used when stir-fried and sauteed with garlic, they also work best in quick soups as it cooks up quickly and the leaves remain slightly nutty and sweet. Its coarse texture also aids in holding up well under high heat. It is effective in weight loss and easing constipation and is a good dietary supplement for heatstroke or any ailments resulting from the summer heat.
Price: S$1.60 – S$2
Here’s a fun fact; kale is a member of the cabbage family. It possesses a smooth or curly shape and has large, edible leaves running through the middle. The leaves are coloured in a darker shade of green, though with a stroke of luck, you might get your hands on its purple varieties as well.
Touted as a superfood, it is also nutrient-dense. It contains vitamin B, C and E which are important antioxidants essential to support the immune system.
Its thick rubbery ruffled leaves are as chewy as leather, and its bitter astringency requires learned appreciation. Though its bitterness might be a slight turn-off for many, when handled right, it becomes a divine vegetable blend.
Personally, this is my favourite homemade snack chip but there are a few other ways you can devour this most faithful of vegetables. It can be enjoyed raw, sliced into fine ribbons and makes it for a great salad. Cooked and boiled, it can be braised into a silky smooth texture and still taste decadently delicious.
Price: From S$5
Bak Choy is a type of Chinese cabbage that has smooth, wide, and green flat leaf blades with lighter-hued bulbous bottoms. They form a cluster reminiscent of celery or mustard greens.
A versatile ingredient used widely in house-hold dinners, this sweet flavoured and crunchy vegetable is a perfect fit for any diet. Bak choy isn’t just a great source of vitamins and minerals but it has been said to help in preventing cancer.
One of the top anti-inflammatory foods on the planet, it has the ability to reduce the risk for conditions like heart disease.
Stir-fried bak choy fits the bill for a handy stir-fry. All you need is some garlic and sesame oil to whip out a flavourful dish—the result is a clean vegetable dish that is light and ideal for any diet plans.
Kick up the flavour level a notch by baking or roasting them in your oven with a dose of soy sauce, sesame oil and vinegar; I promise they won’t disappoint.
Price: From S$2 – S$3
Often confused with lettuce, they differ in a myriad of ways. They have diverse nutritional, flavour profiles and culinary uses.
Cabbage is the rounder one of the two, with the latter possessing a lengthier stem. Cabbage comes in a wide range of colours, ranging from the common green hue to deep purples. The cabbage plant is often bulbous in shape, with short leaves that meet at the top while lettuce plants have short stems but long leaves that wrap around each other.
Cabbage has over twice the dietary fibre that lettuce has, and is essentially healthier than lettuce in terms of its nutritional content.
Cabbage is incredibly versatile in the culinary world. It is often served cooked and is usually boiled in water or served steamed, sautéed, or stewed, with the exception of coleslaw.
Price: From S$1
A crowd-pleaser and my all-time favourite, kang kong are notably known as water morning glory or water spinach. Their leaves are generally flat, though they sometimes vary in shape from long, narrow and arrow-shaped. T
hey are usually served as a side dish, slathered with a blanket of minced garlic or a fragrant sambal chilli.
It has a hint of mellow sweetness, and is slightly mucilaginous (a viscous or slimy mouthfeel), resulting in a subtle slimy or gooey mouthfeel when cooked. Its crunchy leaves and stems are highly sought-after in salads, braised and stir-fries.
It is extremely rich in Vitamin A and acts as an antioxidant, providing the much needed dietary fibre which prevents constipation. Also, every 100g of this only contains 19 calories!
In Southeast Asia, where the vegetable is most prevalent, it is cooked with a variety of ingredients often based on the country or culture using it. In Thailand, it is most commonly stir-fried with garlic, a preserved soybean paste or a native chilli paste.
In most Chinese households, however, the vegetable is usually flash fried and tossed in oyster sauce.
Price: From S$0.80
Chye Sim is a leafy vegetable commonly used in Chinese cuisine and is widely sold in Singapore due to its ability to thrive in tropical climates. It is distinguishable by the yellow flowers it bears and is classified similarly to kai lan and bak choy.
Known for its bitter leaves, it has slender and smooth stems that are crisp, pale green, and firm that connect to broad, flat green leaves.
It has wondrous nutritional benefits and has the ability to lower cholesterol levels and improve one’s skin quality. It is usually described as bitter and earthy.
Great when doused in oyster sauce or lightly stirred fried, this dish complements any Asian dishes as a side dish. It is light on the palate, low in calories and is often blanched until tender.
Both savoury and lightly sweet, it is a perfect dish to add nutrition and vibrant colour to your dinner table.
Price: From S$1.60
Kai lan has flat blue-green glossy leaves and thick stems. It is widely used in Cantonese cuisine and usually stir-fried with garlic and ginger. Commonly confused with broccoli, kai lan has smaller florets.
A great option for steaming, their delicate leaves make up a distinctive flavour with a subtle bitter bite though it could possibly taste sweet if prepared and cooked well.
Prominent in Chinese cuisine, the older kai lan are usually tougher and more fibrous. Baby kai lan, on the other hand, is sweeter as the stems are thinner and more tender. High in dietary fibre, it aids digestion and encourages bowel movements.
Fun Fact: When you are choosing your kai lan, make sure to look at the end of the stalk and avoid buying when they are crusty and dry. The stalks should possess a translucent colour.
Furthermore, make sure that the little florets on the vegetable you have in your hand are still compact and not completely flowered—as they indicate a more mature plant and would taste slightly more bitter.
It melds perfectly with oyster and soy sauce and with some garlic, you are bestowed with an exceptionally robust and full-bodied side dish. The garlic crispy garlicky morsels add a depth of flavour and warm up the colour of the dish.
Price: From S$1
An aquatic plant species native to Europe and Asia, watercress is known to grow at rapid rates in water bodies such as creeks and ponds. It is also one of the oldest known edible plants in human history.
The watercress plant has soft, mid-green leaves that have an unbroken and are shaped like a heart. The stems are usually crisp and lighter in colour.
The plant can be grown in households due to its relatively simple requirements. It is also listed as the most nutrient-dense vegetable. Just 34g of this vegetable will provide you with 100% of your recommended daily intake of Vitamin K.
Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that is essential to blood clotting and healthy bones. It also only contains 4 calories per serving!
A versatile vegetable, it is most commonly used to make ‘watercress soup’, a supposed flu remedy and a guaranteed pick-me-up on a rainy day. It can even be served in salads or ground up as an addition to a pesto sauce.
Price: From S$1
Di Gua Miao or sweet potato leaves are not poisonous, as popularly believed. The common misconception that it is poisonous has left this vegetable to be highly underrated. Its leaves are spade-shaped, often growing in large bunches and patches, with slender green stems originating from vines that can grow to over 4m in length.
Amongst all potatoes, sweet potatoes are said to grow the easiest and thrive in warm weather. With edible leaves, the grown plants produce low waste whilst also being a great source of fibre, antioxidants and essential vitamins.
The presence of vitamin A aids with eyesight and promotes healthier skin!
Tasting much like spinach, the sweet potato leaves taste divine with an addition of ginger, garlic and Shaoxing wine. They can be blended into a juice, and makes for a great fuel for any day!
Price: From S$1.30