Photograph by James Wojcik
Identifying what’s what at an Asian market, where labels on produce are not routinely used, can be tricky. The Malay or Korean names in your recipe may bear no resemblance to the Thai or Chinese terms used at the market. Bringing along cookbook or Internet images can help cut through the confusion.
1. Dragon Fruit
The hot pink or yellow overlapped cladding of this cactus fruit, grown in Thailand and Vietnam, conceals pink, red, or white flesh speckled with edible seeds. Tasting like a mild version of kiwi, dragon fruits peel easily and can be served halved and scooped with a spoon.
2. Kaffir lime
The glossy double-lobed leaves of the kaffir (or keffir or kefir) lime tree are used to add an aromatic element to a dish. Their funky citrus scent, mellower and milkier than that of lemongrass, binds the disparate flavors of curries and produces the heady redolence of Thai dishes such as tom yum soup. The pebbly-skinned fruit has little juice.
3. Water Spinach
Never mind the vine’s colloquial moniker, swamp cabbage, or that it grows so fast, it’s generally considered a noxious weed. Think of this morning glory species, sometimes called ong choi, as a delicious embellishment for sautés and soups. The hollow stems earned it the Chinese nickname kong xin cai, or “empty heart vegetable.”
4. Lotus Root
In Hindu and Buddhist tradition the lotus stands for the road to enlightenment: The plant, rooted in mud, grows through murky water and on reaching the sunlight, produces a pristine flower. Cross sections, which show off their lacy cutouts, are often set afloat in soups. The thinner, pliable stems can be pickled.
5. Cloud Ear
Mushrooms One look at these babies—usually bought dried and then reconstituted—and there’s no question about where the name comes from. Auricularia auricula (frequently mistaken for the larger wood ear mushrooms) have minimal flavor, but their slippery-crunchy texture adds a je ne sais quoi to just about anything.
With a spiny shell and an odor of old socks spritzed with garlic, the “king of fruits” lacks immediate curb appeal. But get a pod of the custardy flesh, regarded as an aphrodisiac and a mood enhancer, past your lips and you may well enjoy its smooth richness; think banana custard with sulfuric aromatics. Opt for the ice cream version—your neighbors will be less apt to call the coroner.
7. Bitter Melon
The astringency of these bumpy-skinned vegetables defends it from natural predators. It’s a deterrent for many humans as well; bitterness is the taste least embraced in Western cooking. But the strapping flavor can be ameliorated by dousing slices in salt before rinsing and then incorporating them in curries, soups, and stir-frys. Asian herbalists champion bitter melon as a diabetes remedy.
8. Pea Tendrils
Tender pea pods are available in most supermarkets, but the plant’s shoots—stems, leaves, and the curly thread-fine new growth—are rarely found outside specialty grocers. Imagine a mild spinach flavor overlaid with fresh peas. Tendrils have a short shelf life, and they are best prepared simply: sautéed, in salads, or in soups.
In the 14th century, when Asian spices were the rage in Europe, the groundbreaking French chef Taillevent used galangal in dishes served to a succession of kings. In his cookbook Le Viandier, he advised, “If unobtainable, use a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.” Young white-fleshed galangal is best in soups; older golden or rust-colored pieces are good for curry pastes.
10. Holy Basil
Said to be the reincarnation of a goddess, holy basil, or tulsi, is a sacred plant; those who cultivate it are, in the Hindu faith, “twice blessed.” But there’s no sacrilege in eating the leaves, whose strong taste allows them to stand up to stir-frying.