Baby Gai Lan With Chicken and Chilies

They say all babies are cute.

And it’s mostly true.

But some babies aren’t just cute; they’re tasty.

Baby greens, for example, are tasty.

Baby gai lan goes beyond tasty into a realm I like to call, “Well, why haven’t I been eating this my entire life?”

That’s baby gai lan. It’s tiny–the stalks are, at their largest, as thick as my pinkie finger and abut as long as my middle finger at their longest. Most are smaller than that, though. And being tiny, its just darned cute.

And sweet–all babies are sweet, too, don’tcha know? Well, baby gai lan is really sweet–it has none of the bitterness that its adult brethren can be plagued with. It’s leaves are just as velvety when they are cooked as big gai lan, but the stalks are crisper, or rather, crisp in a different way. They crunch in a more iceberg lettucy-kind of way, instead of a more cabbagey kind of way like big gai lan.

So, I found some of this wonderful winter green at one of the Asian markets in Columbus, and even though I had already chosen Mamma gai lan to come home with me, I tossed the baby in the basket as well, because I’d never had it and I just had to know.

And now I know. And I’m letting you know, so we all will know, that if you see it in the market–buy it, run right home and cook it up and eat it. You’ll love it–that is–if you love greens.

I decided to make a very simple Cantonese-style stir fry out of the little gai lan–I wanted to showcase its flavor and texture without a lot of other stuff to get in the way. I added chicken for protein and textural contrast and fresh Thai chilies for color (I love the way scarlet pops when tossed in among forest and emerald greens) and a sparkle of heat.

For aromatics, I used a small red onion, two cloves of garlic, minced and a 1
1/2 inch cube of fresh ginger, peeled and minced.

And for condiments, a thin, light soy sauce, a bit of sugar, a tiny amount of Shao Hsing wine and some sesame oil. I used no broth to make a sauce–I wanted this to be a nearly dry dish, with what sauce there was clinging to the ingredients, making their own fresh flavors the star of the show.

It turned out to be superb–sometimes the old saying that, “less is more” really is true. And the Cantonese principles of cookery which is to enhance natural flavors without masking them is so often right. Sometimes food really does taste better the less you do to it.

One thing you will notice is that I add small amounts of soy sauce at three different points in the recipe and do the same with the wine twice. The reason for this is that I wanted each component of the dish to be seasoned carefully. So, the chicken marinates in the soy sauce and wine, then when it is cooking with the aromatics and chilies, soy sauce and wine are added again to marry the flavors of the aromatics with the chicken. The third and final addition of soy sauce comes when the gai lan goes into the wok, adding a bit of salt and umami goodness to the sweet greens.

Baby Gai Lan with Chicken and Chilies

1/2-3/4 pound boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into thin 1″ long slices
1 teaspoon thin or light soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon raw sugar
1/2 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine
1 scant tablespoon cornstarch
2-3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
3-5 fresh red Thai chilies, stemmed and cut in half lengthways, seeds scraped out
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 1/2 inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
1 1/2 teaspoons raw sugar
1 tablespoon light or thin soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine
1/2 pound baby gai lan, well washed and dried
1-2 teaspoons light or thin soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil


Toss the chicken with the first measures of soy sauce, wine, sugar and cornstarch. Allow to marinate for about twenty minutes, while you prep the vegetables.

Heat your wok on high heat until a thin swirl of smoke rises from the hot metal. Add the peanut or canola oil, and heat for another 30-45 seconds, or until the oil shimmers and ripples slightly from the heat.

Toss in the onion slices, and stir fry vigorously until they soften and begin to take on a golden tone. Add in the chilies and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the onions are truly golden and the chilies have wrinkled a bit and darkened from the heat.

Add the chicken in one layer to the bottom of the wok–spread it so as much of it is in contact with the hot metal as possible. Sprinkle garlic, ginger and the second measure of sugar over the top of the chicken pieces and leave the meat undisturbed on the bottom of the wok until you smell it browning. Then, start stir frying, keeping the contents of the wok in constant motion.

Add the second measure of soy sauce and wine, and keep stir frying until most of the pink has gone from the chicken and has been replaced with golden brown and white. Add in the gai lan (make sure it is really dry, please) and finally add the third measure of soy sauce. Cook, stirring, until the leaves wilt nicely and the green color of both the leaves and stalks darken slightly.

Remove from heat and stir in the sesame oil.

Serve immediately with steamed rice. I prefer jasmine.

This recipe will feed two or three people, depending on their appetite.


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  1. at the risk of sounding like a groupie, I do need to tell you how it makes my day to have your posts pop up in my reader.
    and the recipe sounds lovely. Will try and springboard from that using pork and mustard greens instead

    Comment by chicu — December 16, 2010 #

  2. Barbara, I adore your stir-fries, so was thrilled to see this recipe pop up in my reader. I was going to ask if there was something I could substitute for the gai lan if I couldn’t find it at our tiny local Asian market, but chicu has given me an answer – I just happen to have mustard greens in the fridge.

    We’re having this tonight either way.

    Comment by Jan — December 16, 2010 #

  3. Oh, I love gai lan! I’ve never had the baby stuff, though. I might have to check next time I’m at the Asian grocery to see if they carry it.

    I just recently made a chicken and veg stir fry in the same basic way, marinating the chicken just as long as it took me to prep the veggies. Even that long, with the chicken already cut, added a lot of flavor to the meat. It’s a great method!

    Comment by Laura B. — December 16, 2010 #

  4. You can get BABY gai lan? Why have I never been introduced to this wonder? Woe.

    Comment by Eve — December 17, 2010 #

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