Real Food Encyclopedia | Bok Choy
In 1982, when Martin Yan launched his legendary cooking show, “Yan Can Cook,” on PBS, American home cooks were just getting acquainted with soy sauce. Unless you grew up with it, bok choy (and its Chinese cabbage kin) was a stranger to these parts, or at the most, the stuff of exotica.
Fast forward 30 years, and bok choy is a beloved mainstay of Chinese-American carryout menus. These days, it’s available everywhere, from big-box stores to farmers’ markets, ethnic corner stores to specialty produce shops. Still, many home cooks shy away from this friendly, lightning quick-cooking green.
Botanically we’re talking about the Brassicas, the extended family of plants that includes kale, collard greens and various cabbages. The original cabbage gang (B. oleracea) dates to ancient Egyptian times, and early cabbages surface in China around 500 CE. Bok choy didn’t make its way to Korea until the 14th century, where it was a key ingredient in kimchi, a condiment made from fermented vegetables that is still a mainstay of that country’s diet. It is said that bok choy migrated to Japan after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905 ) when Japanese soldiers who fought in China returned home with their newfound vegetable delectable. Bok choy’s history in the United States is closely linked with the massive wave of Chinese immigration to California in the 1800s. By 1870, Chinese immigrants made up between 15 and 50 percent of the farm labor force.
Fun Facts about Bok Choy:
- In Singapore, where vertical farming is a burgeoning industry, commercial growers are enjoying great success with the vegetable, which is responding well to 30-feet-high stacked conditions.
- Although it will forever be known first and foremost as a Chinese green, bok choy has worked its way into many cuisines around the world, particularly in the Caribbean, the result of the massive Chinese diaspora of the 19th century. Don’t be surprised if you see “pak choi” or “joy choy” on menus or in markets in Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica or Cuba. In Britain and Australia, “pak choy” is a common spelling.
- In Chinese, the word “choy/choi” means vegetable and “bok” (or “pak”) means “white.”
What to Look for When Buying Bok Choy
Given the myriad spellings and name convention, it’s tough out there for an aspiring bok choy cooker to know what to look for, particularly in the produce section.
Here’s the skinny:
In “Stir-Frying to the Wok’s Edge”, Chinese cooking doyenne Grace Young explains that what’s labeled as bok choy is most likely the large (8 to 11 inches tall) fully grown bunch, with white stalks and dark green leaves. This can be tougher and stringier than baby bok choy, which comes in two varieties – the kind that looks like a miniature version of the big-boy bok choy, with dark ruffled leaves – and the prized Shanghai bok choy. Known for its pale green leaves and the “spoonlike shape of its stems,” Shanghai bok choy has a delicate texture and sweet flavor, and is what most Americans know as “baby bok choy. ”
Stalks should be firm and free of blemishes. Nothing bruised or mushy, please. Leaves should be perky (i.e., no sagging) and a vibrant shade of green, with no brown or yellow spots, which are signs of age.
Sustainability of Bok Choy
Just because conventional head cabbage is on the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean 15” list, a list the EWG created to single out produce with the highest pesticide loads, doesn’t mean you can assume that bok choy is in the clear. In fact, there’s no mention of it in EWG’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, but per usual, we recommend buying organic whenever possible to avoid insecticide residues. And during spring and fall, keep an eye out for bok choy at farmers’ markets or farm stands, and talk to your grower about production methods. Often growers who can’t afford organic certification are actually farming without chemicals. And here’s a friendly reminder to wash your produce, even if it’s organic.
Although available year-round in supermarkets, bok choy is a cool weather crop (like kale, it’s frost resistant) and shows up at farmers’ markets and in CSA boxes during spring and fall. Veteran vegetable gardeners know that it can’t take the heat and will bolt in summer months.
Because it is considered a specialty crop under the eyes of the USDA, statistics on commercial production are hard to come by. But we do know that California is one of – if not the leading – states for growing Chinese cabbage. There’s some commercial production also taking place in Florida and Arizona. Due to a continued immigrant influx in Canada, there’s a surging interest there in growing specialty ethnic crops, including bok choy.
Eating Bok Choy
Smaller varieties are more perishable and should be used within three days; their larger counterparts have a slighter longer crisper life, maybe about five days. Plastic bags encourage moisture, a fast track to decay, so try storing in mesh bags or in damp kitchen towels in the refrigerator.
Because the stalks take considerably longer to cook than the leaves, many chefs recommend blanching (parboiling) the vegetable for 60 seconds before stir-frying or braising. This is fine if you’re braising – gently cooking in a sauce – but if just-blanched bok choy is wet, it will steam rather than sear in the hot oil.
Our suggestion: Separate the vegetable, no matter what size, into stalks and leaves. Cook the stalks first, time depending on size, then add the leaves, which typically take no more than two minutes to wilt. It quickly cooks, especially baby bok choy, and is commonly sautéed with garlic, chili flake, and soy sauce. Bok choy is classically used in Chinese and Japanese cooking, and is a great addition in stir-fry, curries, and soups. You can also cut it thinly and add it to salads, as you would any cabbage.
Ferment it and make kimchi! The process of lacto-fermentation results in pro-biotic enzymes that revive the digestive system and boost immunity.
Bok choy is a good way to keep those Vitamin C, potassium and calcium reservoirs filled, but where it really stands out is in the Vitamin A department, in the form of immune-boosting, disease-fighting, vision-strengthening beta-carotene. For those who don’t meat or dairy, which are naturally rich in Vitamin A, these dark leafy greens can help fill the gap. Plus, one cup contains just 20 calories!