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 other Chinese cabbages were relatively unknown in the US.
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, corner stores to specialty produce shops. Still, many home cooks shy away from this delicious, quick-cooking green.
Bok choy is a Brassica, the group of plants that includes kale, collard greens and various cabbages. The earliest cultivated cabbages (B. oleracea) date to ancient Egyptian times, and early cabbages surface in China around 500 CE. Its history in the United States is closely linked with Chinese immigration to California in the 1800s. By 1870, Chinese immigrants made up between 15 and 50 percent of the farm labor force, and brought many Chinese vegetable crops with them.
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, the vegetable 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.
What to Look for When Buying Bok Choy
There are several related Chinese cabbages that are all sold as bok choy. Also note that the word “bok” is also transliterated from the Chinese in some places as “pak,” so you might see it for sale as “pak choy.”
In “Stir-Frying to the Wok’s Edge”, Chinese cooking expert 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. ” All varieties are delicious and can be used in similar ways, however.
Stalks should be firm and free of bruises or mushy spots. Occasionally, bok choy and other Chinese cabbages will have black flecks on the ribs, known as “pepper spot.” This is a harmless cosmetic condition that doesn’t impact taste or texture. Leaves should be perky (i.e., no sagging) and a vibrant shade of green, with no brown or yellow patches, which are signs of age.
Sustainability of Bok Choy
As a plant with fleshy, tender leaves, it is appealing for many insects like cabbage white butterflies. As a result, some growers may use chemical pesticides to protect their crops. Always wash the vegetable thoroughly to eliminate any residues. If you’re concerned about chemical use, try to buy certified organic bok choy, or get it at your local farmers market where you can ask growers about their chemical use.
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 sometimes turn stringy and bitter in areas with hot summers.
California is one of the main producers growing Chinese cabbage on a large scale, along with Arizona and Florida, but it’s an increasingly common crop on vegetable farms across the country.
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) it 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.
Bok choy is a good source of Vitamin C, potassium and calcium. It’s also a great source of beta-carotene, which is a precursor to Vitamin A 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!
Top photo by naiyanab/ Adobe Stock.