A Guide to the Barbarian Vegetables of China

The vegetables in Chinese cuisine are forever branded as Western interlopers. Here’s how they got there.

The Chinese have a way of reminding foreigners that they’ll never quite fit in. Because certain vegetables, fruits, and spices were introduced into the Middle Kingdom at a time when the entire non-Chinese world was considered downright uncivilized, the plant names quite literally include the Chinese characters for “barbaric” or “exotic.” Many are now staples of Chinese cuisine, but are nevertheless forever branded linguistically as Western interlopers. Here, we take a quick tour of the origins of some of them, and the degree to which they’ve assimilated into modern Chinese cooking.

literally: “foreign pepper”
胡椒 hu jiao

Black pepper in China is associated with several explorers: Tang Meng, the second-century BCE envoy who “discovered” the Indian import in southern markets; Marco Polo, who marveled at the sheer quantity of the precious spice consumed in imperial Hangzhou in the 1200s; and the fifteenth-century naval bigshot Zheng He, whose legendary nine-masted ships brought back a treasury’s worth of pepper, enough to serve as a currency for years afterwards.

Today: White pepper may be the norm in Chinese kitchens, but the black peppercorn is used in Cantonese “soy sauce Western” cuisine, in dishes such as black-pepper beef served over rice or spaghetti.

literally: “foreign radish”
胡萝卜 hu luo bo

The carrots that made their way to northern China from Afghanistan in the fourteenth century arrived in vivid shades of purple, red, and yellow. As for the orange varietal, China and the rest of the world had to wait for patriotic Dutch growers in the 1600s to cross-breed the mutant orange strains into a beta-carotene powerhouse. Our guess is that those carrots made their way to the Dutch colony of Formosa (i.e., Taiwan)—and from there, took a short hop across the strait to China.

Today: In China, carrots’ nutritional value is so highly esteemed that they’re sometimes referred to as “little ginseng.” Many medicinal soups are sweetened by boiled carrots; stir-fries are enlivened by their color and crunch. Firm and dense, the carrot is also ideal for vegetable carving and sculpture.

literally: “foreign peach”
胡桃 hu tao

The most popular theory about the introduction of Persian walnuts into China is that they were brought back by the tenacious envoy Zhang Qian (second century BCE), who was enslaved twice by Asiatic Huns while trailblazing the Silk Road (and escaped both times). Did he nourish his quick wits by nibbling on these nuts? Walnuts are prized as “brain food” in China because of the traditional Chinese medicine “doctrine of signatures” that draws a link between the appearance of an ingredient and the internal organ it most benefits.

Today: Broken walnuts are ground into powder and cooked up as a hot dessert soup. Whole kernels tend to be reserved for honey walnut shrimp, the Hong Kong banquet staple. 

literally: “Persian vegetable”
菠菜 bo cai (short for 波斯 菜 Bosi cai)

Some say spinach came to China via Nepal, when the emperor ordered all suzerain states to send him their finest vegetables. Others say it arrived as a Buddhist fasting food from India during the Tang dynasty. We like to think the spinach emissary was Xuanzang, the famous monk whose arduous seventeen-year sojourn to India is documented, but whose disciple and bodyguard, known as the Monkey King, cannot be confirmed.

Today: As an appetizer, blanched spinach is either paired with peanuts and vinegar, or else doused in sesame paste. When cooked in a wok with eggs and vermicelli, it’s a very common filling for chun bing (springy crepes used to wrap various stir-fries). 

literally: “Occidental greens”
西洋菜 xi yang cai

According to some accounts, watercress was one of many fruits and vegetables introduced to Macau by Portuguese traders from the sixteenth century onward—the spread of the vegetables into southern China helped spur the region’s demographic boom. In fact, during the Qing dynasty, Portugal was referred to as Da Xiyang Guo (“Land of the Great Western Sea”), so it could be argued that watercress was originally named “Portuguese greens.”

Today: In Chinese cuisine, this peppery green, cherished for its tonic effect on lungs and skin, seems to show up almost exclusively in clear soups and porridges.

literally: “Holland beans”
荷兰豆 He lan dou

Dutch horticulturists apparently developed edible-pod peas in the 1500s—and, according to a history professor at Sun Yat-Sen University, the Dutch fleet that called at Canton in 1785 included an official who distributed the seeds of the snow pea to local farmers. But when asked about the Holland connection, the average Chinese person will pose this question in return: “Did you know that Dutch people call them ‘Chinese peas’?!”

Today: Don’t fuss with fresh snow peas. They are used in simple stir-fries, either solo or with cured pork.

literally: “barbarian eggplant,” “Western red persimmon”
番茄 fan qie, 西红柿 xi hong shi

O brave New World, that had such juicy red fruits in’t! The conquistadors brought the tomato back to Europe, it disseminated in the colonies not long afterwards. It’s thought to have reached China via the Philippines.

Today: Look for it in Hong Kong dishes like beef with tomato and baked pork chop rice. On the mainland, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sugar used to be a popular appetizer, but tomato scrambled with egg (as a topping for rice) is what’s ubiquitous these days. Xinjiang, a province in the northwest, currently produces about a fifth of the world’s tomatoes, so the vegetable has found its way into the region’s cuisine, most prominently in stir-fried noodle dishes.

literally: “Western calabash”
西葫芦 xi hu lu

Because it’s a squash, zucchini’s ancestral homeland is the Americas. Which means that you can reasonably surmise that the zucchini also took the long route to Asia by hitching a ride on the galleons and rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Introduced during the late Ming and early Qing dynasty, zucchini plants came to be appreciated in China for their prolific output and for helping to relieve the monotony of winter cabbages and radishes.

Today: Most dumpling houses offer zucchini as an option for fillings, especially when mixed with scrambled egg. In Beijing, you’ll find pancakes of shredded zucchini called hutazi, which are eaten with a garlic-and-vinegar dipping sauce.

literally: “foreign mountain taro,” “Holland root-tuber,” “foreign-devil mercy root-tuber”
洋山芋 yang shan yu, 荷兰薯 He lan shu, 番鬼慈薯 fan gui ci shu

There are many accounts of the potato entering China: Russian missionaries and Siberian traders in the 1600s who introduced it to the northwestern regions of China; Dutch traders who first cultivated it in Taiwan during the seventeenth century; Ming Dynasty pirates who brought them to the coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. We do know that the potato was later popularized by Catholic missionaries as a hedge against famine—maybe that’s why they’re still known in some parts of Guangxi as “foreign-devil mercy root-tubers.”

Today: Many expats in China are nonplussed by the Chinese liking for julienned potatoes stir-fried in a vinegar sauce. They’re usually relieved to discover that in Yunnan, potatoes are more likely to be mashed, deep-fried, or pan-fried and then steamed with rice. In Xinjiang and in China’s northeast, the tuber also turns up in several signature stews. In Henan, stretchy translucent potato noodles in a spicy soup are a popular street food.

literally: “barbarian yam”
番薯 fan shu

Most agree that sweet potato’s introduction to China was post-Columbian (i.e., via Spanish or Portuguese traders after the conquest of the Americas), but some dreamers insist that the sweet potato had already been brought to Asia a few centuries before Columbus, via Polynesian catamarans. (And then there’s this story: a Ming Dynasty physician tasted sweet potatoes in Vietnam; he asked the king for an uncooked one, took two bites, and pocketed the rest with intent to smuggle it back home. At the border, a guard noticed the contraband but looked the other way after the physician cured his illness.) What’s indisputable is that the governor of Fujian province procured sweet potato seedlings from the Philippines in 1593 and ordered that they be planted widely to ward off famine. Fast-growing and nutrient-rich, this crop has been a victim of its own eagerness to please; once it became associated with animal fodder and privation, it was almost inevitable that the term “sweet potato eater” would be used as a slur.

Today: Along with corn, peanuts, and taro, sweet potato is used in da feng shou, a classic northeastern steamed dish that celebrates the annual harvest. In Beijing, the smell of roasted sweet potatoes on street corners is a delicious herald of winter. Purple sweet potato is increasingly popular as a filling for pastries.

literally: “Western kale flower”
西蓝花 xi lan hua

China is no stranger to cruciferous vegetables, as its centuries-long relationship with cabbage proves. But in selecting for bigger leaves, Chinese farmers neglected the other parts of the Brassica oleracea plant. Broccoli was first introduced to southern China in the nineteenth century, but even as late as the 1980s was unknown in Beijing. The UNDP introduced the crop to help boost nutritional intake, and within a couple of decades, it had become a staple at local grocer stands.

Today: In China, broccoli is usually stir-fried—but is rarely mixed with other vegetables or proteins. At banquets, broccoli florets occasionally serve as a decorative hedge around a heap of pricey seafood. But if you’re lucky, you’ll find a Hong Kong-style restaurant that serves an entire head of broccoli that has been cut apart, lightly blanched, and then reassembled on a plate before being completely drenched in a rich curry sauce.

literally: “Western melon”
西瓜 xi gua

The watermelon, first domesticated in Africa, was cultivated in northern China in the twelfth century. Nowadays, the markets of Xinjiang fill every summer with massive piles of stripey green melons.

Today: In China, a good gossip session doesn’t feel right unless you’re working your way through a pile of roasted melon seeds. Some watermelon varieties are selected for maximum seed production, with the pulp a mere afterthought. The watermelon is also prized as a canvas for food sculptors.

literally: ”Occidental allium”
洋葱 yang cong

Allium crops have been cultivated in China since antiquity, but some onion species were brought back by Zhang Qian from the barbarous lands west of Han Dynasty China. Over the centuries, though, allium varietals were bred for edible shoots and green leaves (i.e., scallion, leek), de-emphasizing the bulbs. The dense and spherical “storage onions” familiar to us likely only made their way to China in the seventeenth century via the Portuguese presence in Macau. As a relative newcomer, the onion bulb would not have been included in the original “five pungents,” the aromatics (including garlic, chives, and shallots) blacklisted by strict Buddhists for allegedly stimulating anger and lust. But any Chinese cook curious enough to slice up a big bulb would quickly have intuited—from its aroma—that this new ingredient was quite racy indeed.

Today: Sliced onions are common enough in Chinese stir-fries, especially those involving beef or lamb—but they’re very much a supporting player, sweated long enough to lose their pungency.

literally: “Wallace melon”
华来士瓜 Hua lai shi gua

Honeydew is the only ingredient on this list to have been imported to China not by land or by sea, but by air—and via Air Force Two, no less! In 1944, Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president, presented the governor of Gansu with seeds of the honeydew melon, which the agriculturally-savvy Wallace and botanist friends believed would be a good crop for the drought-stricken area. The fruits helped transform the local economy and became known colloquially as “Wallace melons.” The region still hosts an annual Wallace Day festival, where crowds gather to participate in melon tastings, gawk at melon exhibits, and play melon games.

Today: On Chinese streets, melon is commonly sold by the skewer. Each crescent slice is lanced onto a wooden chopstick and sold for a few cents a pop.