What: Kai-lan, known as Chinese broccoli, a staple of dim sum restaurants and Chinese New Year celebrations.
Why: Kai-lan makes your heart feel super-happy. Like other Brassica family members, Chinese broccoli megadoses you with vitamin C, fiber, and beta-carotene, and can knock cancer to the curb. But unlike the Calabrese broccoli that you might see in the supermarket, it won’t terrify your children. That’s because it doesn’t have Calabrese broccoli’s fractal-headed alien appearance. If regular broccoli had a friendly Nickelodeon character grinning back at four-year-old me, with a tiger and a koala and a whatever that thing on the balloon is, and my mom told me that she wanted me to eat the yummy green snack that shared that character’s name, I would be demanding it in my Dora the Explorer lunchbox. You would too.
Impact: Well, China named a cartoon after it, which means that Chinese children must eat it. Quite a lot of it, in fact. The People’s Republic of China is the largest consumer of broccoli in the world, and—well, okay, they’re the largest consumer of every edible thing in the world, but trust me, they love their kai-lan. And they should. Chinese broccoli is more succulent, more meaty, and more uplifting in taste than traditional broccoli, and it goes perfectly with plum sauce.
Personal Connection: I ate an entire plate of it today during our celebration of the Year of the Rabbit. (Hoppy New Year!) This likely flabbergasts my mother, because for most of my childhood, I could not stand broccoli. Or at least I kept telling myself I couldn’t stand broccoli, even though I probably went a decade refusing to eat it. But what I really couldn’t stand was my mental picture of the broccoli I ate as a very young child. Eating kai-lan in the Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants of Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood made me understand why my mom wanted me to eat it. Well, that and the whole beta-carotene thing, but that still doesn’t work on me.
Other Contenders: corn on the cob, eaten close to harvest so the sugar hasn’t yet turned to starch; its counterpart baby corn, which dispenses with the whole humans-can’t-eat-corncobs nonsense; the black Spanish radish, so hot it’s like eating an entire canister of black pepper; the globe artichoke, which may have the lowest edible content-to-weight ratio of any vegetable, but makes up for it in its frequent proximity to melted butter; the humble chickpea, the basis of everything that’s right with the Middle East; the pearl onion, which makes all that peeling and crying seem worthwhile; the flower of the Humulus plant, which makes this activity possible.