Chinese kale, also called Kailaan, Gai Lan or Chinese broccoli, is a staple ingredient in Chinese cuisine.
In this guide, our expert gardeners will show how to plant gai lan and show you its many tasty uses.
What is gai lan?
Gai lan is a leafy vegetable that’s native to China and very popular in Asian-style cooking.
It has a mild yet distinctive taste, with a more noticeable bitterness compared to regular broccoli. All parts of the Chinese gai lan are edible: leaves, stems, even flowers. You can use it either cooked or raw, in vegetarian and vegan recipes, as well as meat-based dishes.
The name ‘gai lan’ is the Cantonese name for this plant, while ‘jie lan’ is the Mandarin name. You will also find it under names such as kai lan, kailaan or even gailan, which are all phonetic variations for the same name.
The gai lan’s scientific name is Brassica oleracea var Alboglabra, placing it in the same family as kale, collard greens, broccoli and even cauliflower. Gai lan is more closely related to the European cultivars than other leafy Asian vegetables, such as gai choy, which is closer to mustard. Gai lan is also associated with Chinese vegetables such as choy sum or bok choy.
Is gai lan like western broccoli or kale?
Although the common names used for gai lan are Chinese kale or Chinese broccoli, the plant looks very little like its namesakes. So don’t expect the large, ruffled leaves of the Western kale or the broccoli’ crunchy florets.
A typical kai lan vegetable resembles spinach, with its medium-sized, oval-shaped green leaves, but its stems are thicker and longer. If allowed to flower, gai lan will produce clusters of bright, yellow blooms that resemble those of the rapeseed plant.
You can easily find gai lan in most grocery stores and Asian markets. Some will stock larger cultivars, with leaves almost 8 inches (20 cm) long, while other vendors also supply baby kai lan. What we recommend, however, is growing it yourself. Gai lan is quickly grown from seeds and this way, you can be sure you’ll always have a fresh supply of this tasty vegetable.
Let’s take a look at the growing and care guide for Chinese broccoli.
How to grow gai lan
Gai lan has the same growing and care needs as its cousins: broccoli, kale, collard greens, and so on. Its fast growth rate can be planted several times a year, although it performs best as a cool-season crop, from mid-spring until early autumn.
There are several gai lan to choose from, depending on whether you prefer thick or thin stems, broad or small leaves. Some varieties produce yellow or white flowers, and others have showy, lightly blue leaves. Depending on the type, you can also find gai lan that grows up to 19 inches (48 cm) tall, although most only reach about 8 inches (20 cm) in height. Pick the type of seeds that best suit your needs and taste.
You can quickly grow gai lan outdoors, in your garden, by sowing the seeds directly in the soil. However, we recommend germinating the seeds indoors, especially if you plan a winter or spring crop. Indoor germination gives you more control over the growing conditions, providing the seedlings with enough water and warmth while also giving you an exact idea of how many have sprouted. Here’s what you need to know.
– Germinating gai lan seeds
To get started, you will need several biodegradable seed starter trays. Check the seed packet to see how many seeds you have, and allocate one tray slot per seed. Fill the tray with compost or potting mix, place the seed inside the slot, and sprinkle a thin layer of soil on top. Use a water spray pump to mist the tray daily, ensuring that each seed receives plenty of water. Misting the seeds is gentler than using a watering can, as it does not wash the soil off the seed or disturb the emerging plants.
It usually takes around 10 to 14 days for the gai lan seeds to germinate and be ready for planting outdoors. Keep them well-watered, in a warm and sunny spot, until they’re mature enough. The easiest way to tell if the seedlings are ready is if they’re at least 2 inches (5 cm) tall and with two sets of leaves each.
Using a pair of scissors, carefully cut the starter trays into individual pots, taking care not to damage the stems.
We don’t recommend removing the seedlings from their biodegradable pots because it can damage the very fragile roots or even induce transplant shock. Instead, all you need to do is dig a small hole in the soil in your garden, place the pot inside, and the material it’s made of will decompose naturally over time.
– Growing gai lan outdoors
The ideal soil for gai lan
Prepare the soil using a spade, shovel or mini-tiller, to ensure that it’s loosened to a depth of around 12 inches (30 cm). Make sure to remove any weeds and add compost to create a nutrient-rich substrate. Aim for a pH ranging from 6.0 to 6.7.
Gai lan needs well-draining soils, as it can wilt and die if it becomes waterlogged. Therefore, if your garden has dense, clay-heavy soils, you will need to add amendments such as compost, bark or peat moss.
When is the best time to sow gai lan seeds outside?
If you want to plant gai lan seeds in the garden soil directly, you can sow them starting mid-spring.
Ensure that any chance of frost has passed and that temperatures won’t drop below 50°F (10°c), to ensure successful germination. Dig a shallow trench, about a quarter of an inch (5mm) deep, and sow the seeds 8 inches (20 cm) apart. Cover with a light layer of compost or soil, and water gently and regularly until the seedlings make an appearance.
When should I transplant gai lan?
For pre-germinated seeds, the best time to transplant gai lan seedlings outdoors is early in the morning, before the hot sun can scorch them. Plant each seedling around 8 inches (20 cm) apart, in rows at least 10 inches (25 cm) apart. Water generously, and then water them once more in the evening.
Watering gai lan
Over the first week, gai lan seedlings need to be watered twice a day. During hot and dry periods, you will need to water them even 3 or 4 times, but avoid watering during the hottest parts of the day. As the seedlings settle, you can reduce the watering to either daily or twice a day, depending on how hot it is outside.
The rule of thumb is to ensure that the top 5 inches (12 cm) of the soil is kept moist.
Do I need to fertilize gai lan?
Gai lan is a fast grower if provided with enough light, water and nutrients. Two weeks after transplanting the seedlings to the soil, you can start applying liquid nitrogen fertilizer and repeat the application once every 10 days. You can also add mulch to the plants’ base, which will preserve the moisture in the soil.
– When can you harvest gai lan?
Gai lan can be harvested around 50 days after it’s been sown, although some can be picked even after 30 days. On average, you can start harvesting it around 3 weeks after the seedling pots have been transplanted outside or when the flower buds have begun appearing on the plants but haven’t fully opened yet.
Using a sharp knife, cut off the top 8 inches (20 cm) of each stem. Always harvest the stems from the center of the plant, and leave some of the side ones still attached. They will continue to grow and can be harvested a week or two later. By leaving some stems on the plant, you encourage the Chinese broccoli to continue growing, and you can enjoy a repeated harvest from the same plant.
The older the plant gets, the thicker and chewier the stems become, while also developing a more bitter taste. This is why we recommend harvesting Chinese broccoli when the stems are still juicy and tender. The young leaves and stems are the most prized part of the plant, especially if you want to cook and serve them as baby Chinese broccoli.
– Gai lan pests
Insects find Chinese broccoli just as tasty as you do. As a result, you can expect visits from snails, slugs, beetles, caterpillars, aphids, and many other common pests in vegetable gardens. To protect the leaves and stems from being devoured, we recommend checking on your gai lan plants daily and manually removing pests such as snails and slugs.
Insecticides are not recommended, so if you have severe pest infestations, we suggest using a nontoxic horticultural spray made from pure castile soap and water.
Another way to protect gai lan from pests is to keep your garden clean of any debris like fallen leaves, garbage or other organic waste. If you’re growing Chinese broccoli every year, it’s best to plant it in a different part of the garden each time to discourage regular pest attacks.
The nutrient-rich, well-watered soil is also very inviting for weeds. Herbicides can damage the gai lan just as much as they damage weeds, which is why it’s best not to use them. Instead, manually remove the weeds when they’re small, take care to pull out their roots from the ground, and discard them in the garbage bin.
How to cook with Chinese broccoli
Chinese broccoli, or gai lan, is frequently used in Asian dishes, adding a vibrant touch of color and a buzz of flavor. Its taste is quite similar to that of broccoli, with a mild green bitterness. Although it’s slightly more bitter than broccoli, it’s nowhere near as bitter as kale. The stems have a light, crunchy texture, although baby kai lan is more tender.
When cooking gai lan, you can either keep the leaves on the stems or remove them and cook them like spinach. Gai lang, to preserve flavor and texture, it’s best to cook it lightly.
Otherwise, the leaves turn limp, and the stems become soft and mushy. You can blanch it for a couple of minutes, poach it, or sauté it. When blanching gai lan, we recommend adding a pinch of baking soda to preserve the leaves’ vivid green color and stems.
This leafy green works best in stir-fries, Asian soups, or even just lightly fried in a wok and drizzled with some oyster sauce. For a rich, authentic flavor, pair your gai lan recipes with sesame oil, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and a touch of sugar.
Gai lan is a tasty and healthy vegetable. It’s rich in fiber, vitamin B (especially B9), potassium and antioxidants. It is also packed with vitamin K, which benefits the cardiovascular system, carotenoids for healthy eyes, and enzymes that can detoxify the body and reduce the risk of cancer.
Can you eat the flowers of Chinese broccoli?
All parts of the Chinese broccoli are edible, including the flowers. Their flavor is the same as the leaves and the stem, with a similar vegetable bitterness. Many grocery shops sell gai lan with the small, yellow blooms still attached.
Our recommendation is to look for flowers that are still small and only barely open. Older flowers tend to have a more bitter taste, although they can work as a unique garnish on your Asian dishes.
What can you substitute gai lan with?
If you’re in a pinch and can’t find gai lan locally, there are several leafy vegetables you can replace it with. For an authentic taste to your Asian dishes, bok choy is a good substitute, as it has the same mildly bitter flavor. Broccoli rabe (or rapini) is also similar to gai lan, with the same type of leaves, flowers and stems, and a noticeable bitter taste. However, it is more commonly associated with Mediterranean cuisine.
Not a big fan of bitterness? Then broccolini also works as a substitute. This vegetable is a hybrid between broccoli and gai lan, but it has a sweeter, earthier flavor, and smaller leaves.
You can also replace gai lan with its Western cousins, depending on the type of dish you’re cooking. For example, you can use broccoli florets in a stir-fry and kale or spinach in recipes where leaves are more commonly used, such as soups.
However, gai lan has a unique, unmistakable taste, which is why we don’t recommend replacing it with other substitutes. This vegetable is easy to grow and produces an abundant yield, so if you’re looking for an authentic addition to your Asian dishes, make sure to allocate some space for gai lan in your garden.
Chinese kale is a fantastic addition to any garden, with its attractive, vibrant green leaves and delicate flowers. However, for avid cooks and fans of Asian cuisine, it’s a must-have plant that can add a new dimension to your cooking, bringing authentic flavors to any Asian dish.
Let’s go over the vital growing tips and cooking tricks.
- Chinese kale goes by many names, including gai lan, kai lan, and Chinese broccoli.
- Gai lan has more in common with spinach than western kale and broccoli but ultimately brings its unique warmth and flavor.
- It’s easy to grow outside, but for best results, it’s worth germinating indoors before transplanting after around 10 to 14 days.
- It likes water and is best suited to cooler periods rather than the heat of summer.
- Gai lan is a fast grower with some species ready to harvest after 30 days, though 50 days is more common.
- You can cook and eat all parts of the plant.
Chinese kale is a healthy and delicious vegetable that can bring your Asian dishes to the next level.
Easy to grow yourself, it can be great fun to try different varieties until you find your favorite!