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Many times when buying Kai Lan:

Kai Lan

and Choi Sum

Choi Sum

Chinese shop staff heartily say

Cut flowers. Don't eat them. Flowers have insects.

  1. Are they correct? How do the flowers harm you?

  2. Were they referring to pollinators that land on those flowers?

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    What's the difference between pollinators and insects @Vast? Any pollinator that would be small enough to be in a flower would almost certainly be an insect. – GdD Jan 29 at 11:42
  • @GdD Not all pollinators are insects. Some bats, hummingbirds, monkeys, lizards, etc, are also pollinators. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollinator#Vertebrates – Ben Feb 1 at 6:13
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    @Ben "Any pollinator that would be small enough to be in a flower would almost certainly be an insect." Find us a a bat, hummingbird, monkey, or lizard small enough to be in an itty bitty flower, and your comment will have merit in this situation. – RonJohn Feb 1 at 7:56
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    @GdD You got me! I removed "insectS". Thanks. – Vast Feb 1 at 9:07
  • @RonJohn Here you go i.imgur.com/fCImYbQ.png – Ben Feb 2 at 20:22
14

I would say there may be more insects in the flowers, but that is not a big deal. The ones not removed by normal washing or possibly a saltwater rinse will mostly at least be tiny ones attracted by the flowers and will not affect quality and taste. Some would even callously call it extra protein. IMO, the real issue with these types of plants having flowers is that the plant is bolted. Most if not all of these vegetables are best quality when harvested before they bloom. Any bolting would normally mean the plant was beyond prime condition when harvested or was grown under stress, too hot, too cold, too crowded, not enough water are typical causes of early bolting. The entire plant may be fine, but sometimes will be tougher or bitter and the flowers and stem on many are bitter and tough and not what you are looking for. They often will have a very different taste than the rest of the plant. In some cases, you might like that taste, but in most it is not what you were expecting. For instance, in Pak Choi I have had it with flowering. Not only was the stem to the flowers stringy, it had a latex like with liquid which was off-putting. The flower itself had a strong mustard taste which was not at all like the leaf and stem which is what was intended.

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58

When a plant arrives in the kitchen, the ecological perspective doesn't matter any more. Any insect present on a plant destined for human consumption is considered a pest by the consuming humans and by the cooks preparing the food for them, no matter what the plant considers it to be (pollinator, parasite, whatever). The average person dislikes consuming insects, and people who enjoy eating insect-based dishes frequently object to consuming insects of unknown species that are not part of the recipe. This is a cultural thing of course, my own great-grandfather always laughed at people cutting out worms from apples - for him, the worm was as much a part of the apple as the pips. But the average westernized cultural setting today views that insects are disgusting and should not be eaten.

So the seller won't tell you which insects these are - they don't know and it doesn't matter to them. They just assume that you don't want to eat the insects, like the overwhelming majority of their customers. And so they tell you what method to apply - cut away the flowers - to avoid eating the insects. I suspect that they may have had outraged customers returning vegetables as "defective" if they found out they have insects in their food, and have taken to preemptively give advice how to get rid of the insects.

As for the objective harm, that's highly unlikely to happen. There are very few insects which can damage your health, and these tend to be human or animal parasites, not the kind of insect which lives on a vegetable. So if you eat the flowers and swallow the insects unnoticed, no harm done. If you notice them, there can be emotional harm or not, depending on whether this is a disgust trigger for you or not.

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    For some reason, not obvious to me, I loved the "for him, the worm was as much a part of the apple as the pips." sentiment. – Captain Giraffe Jan 29 at 20:13
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    For what it's worth, I actually like the flavour contrast from the flowers on gailaan and choy sum, at least if they're still very young, and they're usually intact in the chinese groceries I shop at. Just wash them first and it's fine. – J... Jan 29 at 20:28
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    You wouldn't eat the pips either. – AndreKR Jan 30 at 11:24
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    @AndreKR - Maybe you wouldn't. ;-) I know a guy who happily eats the entire apple -- well, okay, he says he doesn't like stems so he pulls that off. But the rest of it, core (and pips) and all, he munches. He told me once that if horses eat the whole thing, why shouldn't he? – T.J. Crowder Jan 30 at 15:54
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    @T.J.Crowder I'm pretty sure it is. As you say, it would take a lot of apples - for a horse or a human. – J... Jan 30 at 18:38
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I believe that this advice is strictly your local Chinese grocer, and does not apply in general or anywhere else.

I have shopped at many different Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean grocery stores in several different US cities. I have Chinese friends that I cook with. I have never been personally advised to remove the flowers before.

Further, I checked several online guides on preparing gai lan for cooking, including this, this, and this, and none of them advised removing the flowers. Nor did the books Chinese Greens nor Fuschia Dunlop's cookbooks.

So, speaking in general, they are not correct (which makes the second part of the question irrelevant).

However, that particular Chinese grocer may be correctly speaking about that specific batch of gai lan that they are selling. So maybe check those (or go to a different grocer).

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  • The first two articles you linked to do not mention the flowers at all. The third article is cautionary: "Can You Eat Gai Lan Flowers? Absolutely! The flowers are perfectly edible. It is worth noting however that many vegetables in the cabbage family can become quite bitter after flowering, so you might want to avoid plants that have produced a lot of flowers and/or tall flower stalks." – Andrew Morton Jan 31 at 21:11
  • The entire point is that they don't mention the flowers. And the third article says nothing about insects. Because it's not a real concern. You're not going to find a source that says "eating the flowers is a-OK because they contain no insects!" – FuzzyChef Jan 31 at 22:32
  • Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. – CJ Dennis Feb 1 at 8:27
  • "I believe that this advice is strictly your local Chinese grocer, and does not apply in general or anywhere else." - I've been told this at 3 different grocers. – Vast Feb 1 at 9:10
  • CJ: it kinda is, actually. If five different guides on how to prepare gai lan don't mention insects or needing to remove the flowers for any reason, then insects-in-the-flowers is not a general problem. Or to put it another way: I cannot find a single source on the internet that mentions this as a problem. The likelihood that it is and nobody mentions it becomes thus far lower than the likelihood that this is a specific issue to Vast's area, or that the Chinese produce managers are having a joke on him. – FuzzyChef Feb 1 at 23:38

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