Sweet, tender and nutritious, Chinese yu choy (a.k.a choy sum) is a delicious vegetable dish you’ve got to try. Top them in a bowl of noodles or as a side dish with a protein of your choice. Blanched or stir fried, yu choy is so easy to make it might become your weekly dinner staple.
What is yu choy?
Yu choy (油菜) is a classic Chinese vegetable that’s part of the mustard family. It directly translates to “oil vegetable” and in Cantonese, we also refer to it as “choy sum” (菜心). In Asian grocery stores, these two names are often used interchangeably. It’s sweet and mild in flavour and has a texture in between spinach and rapini.
Yu choy is a low fat healthy vegetable rich in vitamin A, vitamin C and folate. It’s also a great source of iron. Adding this leafy vegetable to any meal means you amped up your nutrition! Did I mention that it also tastes absolutely delicious??
Yu Choy vs. Gai Lan
Yu choy is not the same as gai lan. Gai lan, also known as Chinese broccoli, is not as tender with thicker stalks and a more bitter taste. Gai lan stems should also be peeled at the ends and cooked separately from the leaves.
Despite these differences, gai lan makes a great substitute in most Chinese dishes. I would always recommend cooking gai lan with some ginger to balance out the bitterness. Yu choy, on the other hand, doesn’t need it, especially the young tender stalks.
How to pick yu choy
Most grocery stores sell regular and sprouts (a.k.a. junior). These are the same variety just picked at different times, the sprouts are picked much earlier and are usually no longer than 5 inches. They have much smaller, skinnier stems and are sweet and tender when cooked.
The regular ones have much longer thicker stems. Don’t be fooled though, when picked at the right time, the stems are incredibly tender and sweet too! My kids and I prefer the stems over the leaves so this is where knowing how to pick them comes in handy.
Yu choy sum is also called “flowering cabbage” because as they grow larger (and older) they produce yellow flowers. Unfortunately, when they start to flower the stems get tougher. I usually peel the lower part of the stem in this case to help make them more tender.
The following is my checklist when picking out the best stems and leaves:
- Minimal or almost no flowers
- Leaves are green, vibrant and without any damage marks or yellowing. They’re also springy and not limp.
- Stems are firm with no dry, yellowing or browning ends
- The entire plant looks fresh and not wilting/drooping
Unfortunately, yu choy sum picked past its prime is stringy and not that fun to eat. If I am unlucky to choose a bad bunch, I end up overcooking them to make it more palatable.
Cleaning and Preparation
Yu choy sum needs to be cleaned of dirt and rinsed before cooking. Sand often gets caught in between the stems and leaves.
Place the stalks in a basin or sink filled with water. Shake the vegetables in the water and let soak for 15 mins. Any dirt should sink to the bottom.
Lift the choy sum out and repeat this process one more time. If your vegetables are really dirty, I would repeat this two more times just to be safe. Check where the stems and leaves meet, there should be no visible dirt – or else you’ll taste that in your mouth…ech.
Trim the stems about ¼ inch to ensure any yellowing or dried parts are removed. If your choy sum is super fresh, you can probably skip this step.
There are a variety of cooking methods, but the two most popular (and easy) ones are quick blanche and stir fry. Both ways take less than 5 mins to cook.
Quick blanche produces a more juicy and tender texture. Perfect in a bowl of noodles or by itself!
- Fill a large pot of water.
- Add salt, sugar and oil. Bring to a boil.
- Place choy sum in the pot. Make sure they are fully submerged in the water.
- Once water comes to a boil again, cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.
- Taste one stem. Cook a bit longer if needed for desired doneness.
- Serve immediately
Stir frying creates a lovely smoky sweet flavour. If done in a wok, the “wok hei” created makes this simple dish one of my absolute favourites! After frying in oil, cover the pan and let it steam for about 2 minutes. Flavorings include garlic, soy sauce, oyster sauce and sesame oil. Personally, I like it without garlic and just seasoned with a bit of salt, soy sauce and oyster sauce. I give all the flavour options in my recipe below.
- Heat a wok with oil on med/high heat.
- (Optional) Add minced garlic and fry for 30 seconds until fragrant – make sure not to burn the garlic.
- Add the yu choy and saute for about a minute, making sure the hot oil lightly coats the vegetables.
- Season with a pinch of salt, sugar and soy sauce mixing thoroughly,
- Pour in chicken broth/water and cover. Cook for about 2 – 5 minutes, stirring halfway through.
- Taste one stem to check for doneness. Cook a bit longer for a softer texture.
- Stir in oyster sauce and sesame oil (if using). Serve hot!
- Yu choy will turn dark green when cooked and shrink to half its size like spinach. Adding a bit of sugar helps it maintain its beautiful green color.
- Overcooked yu choy will start to lose its vibrant green color and turn dull. Definitely don’t overcook!
- The times laid out in the recipe are approximations and really depends on how hot your stove is and your portion size. Yu choy sprouts will cook faster. A smaller portion will also cook faster. Don’t walk away from the stove and I would sample a stem to check for doneness to your preference.
- If you’re really short on time, I would skip the minced garlic and stick to seasoning with soy salt and oyster sauce. It really brings out the natural sweetness of this vegetable.
- When blanching, it’s important the water is salted enough. I would add the same amount of salt you would for cooking pasta. Taste your blanching water and make sure it’s as salty as the sea.
Stir Frying Yu Choy Tips
- If stir frying, it’s important there is enough hot oil to lightly coat the vegetable. This ensures that lovely “wok hei” aroma in the dish.
- Don’t heat your oil above med/high heat to avoid burning the delicate leaves. Lower the heat to medium/low to steam and gently cook through.
- Ensure your yu choy is as dry as possible before stir frying. Shake out any excess water and place the vegetable in a colander before cooking. This also avoids oil splatter when you place the stalks in the hot pan. If the vegetables are wet, there will be a lot of sizzling when it hits the hot wok and hot oil sprays. Be careful!
Serve yu choy hot and immediately after cooking. I wouldn’t recommend making it ahead of time. For blanched yu choy, serve with a bit of oyster sauce on the side along with a bowl of noodles. Or alternatively, serve as a side dish with brown sauce spooned over.
For stir fry, serve as a side dish with your favorite protein (like chicken wings!) and some rice. Three to four stems is always served with chinese bbq on a bed of hot steamed rice. YUM!
Raw yu choy can be stored in a breathable plastic bag in your vegetable drawer for up to 5 days. Make sure not to wash until ready to use to extend its shelf life.
Leftover cooked yu choy can be refrigerated for 1-2 days and reheats nicely in the microwave. It will be softer as a result of reheating.
Gluten free: Substitute soy sauce with gluten free soy sauce or tamari. Replace oyster sauce with hoisin sauce and omit the sugar.
Vegan: Substitute oyster sauce with hoisin sauce and omit the sugar to balance out the sweetness.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
No they are not the same – but equally delicious! Chinese broccoli is more bitter with thick stalks and leaves. Yu choy is much more tender and sweeter. Despite differences, both vegetables can be substituted with each other in most Asian dishes. Just remember that yu choy cooks faster.
The leaves, stems and flowers of yu choy are all edible!
Yu choy is a very nutritious and healthy vegetable. It’s rich in folate, vitamin C and A and is a good source of iron. It can be eaten on its own as a side dish so it’s a great way to get your full servings of vegetables!
Short answer is – yes but cut off the yellow parts. Yellow yu choy is past its shelf life, the leaves are limp and its stems turn brown and dry too. Remove these parts by cutting down the stems and tearing off the yellowed leaves. It loses some of its sweetness when cooked but I’ve definitely eaten my share of “old” yu choy and still enjoyed it 🙂
Easy Yu Choy Sum
- carbon steel wok (for stir frying)
- large stock pot (for blanching)
- 1 lb yu choy (yu choy sprouts or regular)
- 10 cups water
- 1 Tbsp. grapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)
- 1 tsp sugar (brown or white)
- 3 tsp kosher salt (for salting the water)
- 2 Tbsp. oyster sauce (for serving)
For Stir Frying
- 2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)
- 3 garlic cloves minced (optional)
- kosher salt (to taste)
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp light soy sauce
- 4 Tbsp. chicken broth (or water)
- 1 tsp oyster sauce
- ½ tsp sesame oil (optional)
- Clean and rinse yu choy two or three times in a basin of water. Shake the leaves and stems to loosen dirt, paying close attention to where the leaves and stems meet.
- Place yu choy in a colander.
- In a large stock pot, add the water, oil, sugar and salt. Bring to a rolling boil.
- Add the yu choy. Make sure all the leaves and stems are fully submerged in water.
- When water comes back to a boil, cook for 2-4 minutes. Sample one stem to check for doneness. (Note 5)
- When fully cooked, place yu choy on a plate. Pour out any excess water. (Note 4)
- Serve with oyster sauce (for dipping) on the side.
Stir Frying Instructions
- After cleaning yu choy, shake out as much excess water as possible. Take handfuls and shake them out individually placing each handful in the wok cover. Then repeat, putting them back in the colander.
- Heat oil in wok on medium/high heat until starting to smoke. (Note 1)
- (Skip to the next step if not using garlic) Add minced garlic and toss until fragrant (about 20 seconds) making sure not to burn.
- Place yu choy in 3-4 batches carefully in the wok. Flip and coat the leaves between batches. Leaves will immediately start to wilt allowing more yu choy to be added. (Note 2 & 3)
- Once all yu choy is added, add a pinch of salt, soy sauce and sugar.
- Sautee for another 30 seconds mixing thoroughly. Add broth/water, cover and lower heat to medium.
- Steam for 3-5 minutes. Stir halfway through (for even cooking). (Note 4)
- Sample a stem to check for doneness. Cook a bit longer if needed. (Note 5)
- Add oyster sauce and sesame oil (if using). Toss to coat.
- Serve immediately.