Are There Health Benefits of Gai Lan (Chinese Broccoli)?

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on August 23, 2022
5 min read

Broccoli is a common vegetable staple. It’s nutritious, and you can cook it in numerous ways. Chinese broccoli, or gai lan, is a lesser-known vegetable that offers many of the same nutrients as its relatives. 

The scientific name for gai lan is Brassica oleracea L. variation alboglabra. You may hear it called Chinese broccoli, Chinese kale, kie lan, or jie lan. And these names make sense — the plant originated in China, and gai lan looks like a cross between broccoli and kale.

Chinese broccoli looks like a cross between broccoli and kale because they’re all part of the Brassica oleracea species. It has thick stalks like broccoli, but the leaves are shaped more similarly to the shape of kale leaves. The stalks have a sweet taste, and the leaves have a bitter taste.

Even though gai lan is most popular in Asia, it’s not a complex plant to cultivate, and it's full of nutrients. Gai lan is also very versatile because it can be cooked in many different ways depending on your preferences.

Like other Brassica oleracea veggies, the main Chinese broccoli benefits are that it's incredibly nutrient-dense and low in calories and fat. The nutritional value per 100 grams of gai lan includes:

  • 26 calories
  • 1.2 grams of protein
  • 0.76 grams of fat
  • 3.4 grams of carbohydrates
  • 1 gram of protein

Gai lan also has high amounts of key vitamins and minerals. For example, it gives you 41% of your daily value of vitamin C. Your body needs vitamin C to form collagen, keep your immune system functioning, heal injuries, absorb iron, and maintain your bones, cartilage, and teeth.

You can get 40% of your daily value of vitamin A from gai lan, too. Vitamin A is vital to cell growth. When it comes from beta-carotene, which gai lan also has a lot of, it can prevent the loss of eyesight. 

Folate, a B vitamin, is another essential nutrient found in gai lan. Folate is necessary for cell growth and metabolism. It's crucial for people who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Folate reduces the risk of neural tube birth defects, like spina bifida, an incorrect formation of the spinal cord, and anencephaly, where the brain and skull don't develop properly. One hundred grams of gai lan has about a quarter of the daily recommended allowance of folate.

Cooking with new ingredients can feel intimidating. But learning how to eat Chinese broccoli will open the door to a new source of essential nutrients and maybe even some new meal ideas. Luckily, gai lan is a versatile ingredient that you can cook in a similar way as the other veggies in its family.

Before you start cooking, clean the gai lan with cold water to make sure the leaves don’t wilt. The bottom few inches of the stems are tough, so cut these off. Healthy leaves are dark green, so discard any that appear discolored.

Once you’ve washed your gai lan, you can use it immediately, store it, or freeze it. To store your gai lan in the fridge, put it in a plastic bag and keep it in the hydrator or crisper drawer. It should last for 3 to 5 days like this. To freeze it, blanch the gai lan by boiling it for 3 minutes. Chill it in ice water, drain it, and place it in a freezer bag before putting it in the freezer right away.

There are several methods you can try for cooking gai lan. Stir-frying gai lan is common in Asia, but you can also saute it, steam it, boil it, or blanch it. Because the stems take longer to cook than the leaves, cook those until they’re nearly done, and then add the leaves until they soften. Here are some popular ideas for making meals out of gai lan:

  • Add it to a stir-fry dish.
  • Saute it, then flavor it with oyster sauce and garlic or ginger and lime juice and toss it with whole wheat noodles and peanuts.
  • Blanch it and add it to noodle soup or ramen.

Gai lan may be especially popular in Asia, but it's a vegetable you can grow in many different climates. 

The best time of year to sow your gai lan seeds is between April and September. Plant them in a sunny spot about an inch deep in the soil. 

Keep your gai lan plants well watered, and watch out for weeds and caterpillars. Gai lan is a quick-growing plant and will often be ready for harvest after only a few months.

You typically want to harvest your gai lan plants before they begin to flower, but there are some benefits to letting a few plants reach maturity. The flowers are edible and provide a great source of nectar for bees. The flowers will also produce seeds, which will allow you to plant more gai lan later if you want to keep growing it.

Gai lan is an excellent option to add to your diet. The Chinese broccoli nutritional content is similar to other members of Brassica oleracea, like broccoli and kale. It doesn’t have as much protein or fiber, but gai lan has more folate. Overall, if you’re looking to add more variety to your diet, gai lan is a great choice.

The downside to gai lan is that you may have trouble finding it depending on where you are and where you shop. It’s not nearly as common as veggies like broccoli or kale. As a result, you may not be able to find it easily, especially if it’s not in season. Luckily, if you’ve got a little bit of a green thumb, it’s not too tricky to grow yourself.

If you’re unable to find or grow gai lan, don’t stress too much. While this leafy green veggie does pack a nutritional punch, you can still turn to other, similar veggies for those vitamins and minerals. However, if you find yourself with the opportunity to try it, go for it! You might be surprised at how much you like its versatile flavor.