What is Gai Lan?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Gai-lan or kai-lan is called alternately Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale, and is of the species and genus Brassica oleracea. It is unknown where it was first cultivated but it is used in many Asian countries, particularly in Viet Nam and China. It does look somewhat similar to broccoli with green flower heads at the top, which are considered sweet. The surrounding leaves have the sharpness and tang of Chard or Bok Choy and are usually eaten as a leaf vegetable.

Gai lan is often stir-fried with garlic.
Gai lan is often stir-fried with garlic.

There are a number of different ways to prepare gai-lan. The leaves or heads can make their way into soup, clay pot cooked dishes or stir-fried vegetables and meat. When it is eaten alone, especially in Cantonese style, it’s enjoyed stir-fried with ginger and garlic. It may be boiled and eaten plain, since many enjoy the contrast between the sweet head buds and the bitter stems and leaves.

Gai lan is a possible ingredient in fresh salads.
Gai lan is a possible ingredient in fresh salads.

You can use gai-lan, a relative of cabbage, much as you might use spinach, in fresh salads. The Chinese enjoy stir-frying the whole gai-lan and coating it with oyster sauce. It may be served in this manner in Viet Nam, though it can be found used raw with other savory lettuces and herbs to make up the equivalent of the Vietnamese fajita, with grilled meat, sweet sauce, herbs and transparent rice pancakes.

Gai lan can be added to any number of Cantonese stir-fry dishes.
Gai lan can be added to any number of Cantonese stir-fry dishes.

Gai-lan is a healthy addition to your list of vegetables to eat. It can be great for pregnant women, as it is high in folate and calcium. In order to absorb this calcium you should prepare the gai-lan with a little bit of fat, like oil in a salad dressing, or stir-fryng in oil.

In Chinese herb lore, gai-lan was considered helpful in treating anemia, and today it may still be prescribed by those skilled in Chinese medicine for this condition. This may be a little bit off the mark since eating large amounts of folate can actually hide some forms of anemia, making the condition worse instead of better. Still, for those in good health, or aiming to be healthier, there’s no doubt that this delicious, low calorie leaf vegetable can be a good addition to the diet.

Depending upon where you live, you may only be able to find gai-lan in Asian markets. Since it is growing in popularity in the US, a few natural foods and specialty stores will also carry it. It may be easiest to find in summer to late autumn. Occasionally, you’ll find farmers that are adept at growing this vegetable in greenhouses in the winter.

Gai lan is an ingredient in many Asian stir-fries, all of which can be served over fiber-rich brown rice.
Gai lan is an ingredient in many Asian stir-fries, all of which can be served over fiber-rich brown rice.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@cloudel - My mom uses sesame oil to cook her gai-lan, but I prefer peanut oil. Both taste good, but there is just something about peanut oil that goes that extra mile.

Maybe it is because several other Chinese dishes are made with peanut oil. I think I’ve come to associate that flavor with some of my favorite items in Chinese restaurants.

If you don’t like the peanut flavor, then you should probably go with sesame oil, because you will definitely be able to detect the nutty taste if you cook with peanut oil. Really, it is hard to screw up gai-lan, because it tastes so great no matter how you prepare it.


What kind of oil should gai-lan be cooked in? I have only used broccoli in my stir fry dishes, and I really don’t know how to treat gai-lan.

Would it be best in a vegetable oil, or would some type of seed or nut oil taste better? I keep peanut, sesame seed, and sunflower oil in the pantry, so I have plenty to choose from.

I’ve got company coming this weekend, and I would like to make a gai-lan stir fry. I suppose I could experiment with the different oils, but I’d really like some advice from someone who has cooked it before.


@wavy58 - I know what you mean. Gai-lan dishes are great, but if you want to get the full effect, eat it with only one or two other ingredients.

I like to eat gai-lan salad. In fact, all I put in my salad is gai-lan and Italian dressing. This salty yet tangy dressing is the perfect complement to the vegetable, and I know that it helps my body get all the nutrients it can get out of it.

One thing I don’t mind eating gai-lan with is egg noodles. They only take on the flavor of whatever seasonings or sauce you add to them, so they serve as a good background note to the gai-lan. They also help fill me up.


Gai-lan tastes great without a lot of other things added to it. I actually prefer to eat it without meat and other vegetables.

Though I do love it stir-fried with garlic and ginger, I have eaten it boiled only in water. The purity of the flavors is best distinguished when it is prepared this way. I like to blanch it for just one minute, because cooking it much longer than that zaps the nutrients and the flavor.

I’m not opposed to eating it mixed in with other foods. I just can’t really appreciate it when other things are taking away from it.

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