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. (Remember your first bottle of La Choy?) So 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, where so many of us likely got our first taste. 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. A while back, Real Food colleague Megan Saynisch schooled us on the original cabbage gang (B. oleracea), which dates to ancient Egyptian times. It would be more than a thousand years before early cabbages would surface in China, around 500 AD. Were these first editions what we know today as bok choy – with its frilly leaf and celery-like stalk? Or were they rosette-like leaves of tatsoi or the chard-looking Canton bok choy? Since they’re all part of the B. rapa, chinensis group, aka Chinese cabbage, we may never know.
Bok choy made its way to Korea in the 14th century during the Joseon Dynasty as a key ingredient in kimchi, a condiment made from fermented vegetables that is a mainstay of that country’s diet.
Several sources refer to acclaimed 16th century Chinese pharmacist Li Shizhen, who purportedly touts the disease-fighting properties of bok choy in his renowned Compendium of Materia Medica.
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.
Its 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.
- In Singapore, where vertical farming is a burgeoning industry, commercial growers are enjoying great success with bok choy, which is responding well to 30-feet-high stacked conditions.
- In the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, an urban farm is using hydroponics to grow bok choy year round to feed its hungry neighbors.
- 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.”
Because bok choy 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 – state for 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.
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 bok choy can’t take the heat and will bolt in summer months.
Just because conventional head cabbage is on the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean 15” (lower pesticide residue) list doesn’t mean you can assume that bok choy is in the clear. In fact, there’s no mention of bok choy in EWG’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, but as 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. (See our veggie rule of thumb*.)
Given the myriad spellings and name convention, it’s tough out there for an aspiring bok choy cooker, particularly in the produce section.
Here’s the skinny from two favorite sources:
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. ”
And for those who frequent Asian markets, Elizabeth Schneider (Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini) points out a few varieties worth considering:
Canton bok choy (aka dwarf bok choy), which is shorter and squatter than a fully grown bok choy but with curly leaves, similar to Swiss chard.
Choy sum: Typically a flowering and thinner stalked plant, often referred to as “vegetable heart.”
Tatsoi (aka rosette bok choy): If you like mesclun salad mix you’re probably familiar with the flat, almost heart-shaped (or lollipop) leaves, slightly ruffled and with a short stem in a shade of celery green. It’s often mixed with other salad greens because of its stronger flavor. Lovely when quickly wilted and tossed with a mustard-y vinaigrette. Bunches on their own look like flower bouquets.
Not bok choy, but Napa cabbage, arguably the most well-known headless variety of Chinese cabbage, is often used interchangeably in kimchi. It’s part of the closely related pekinensis group of the B. rapa species.
What to look for
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.
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!
What to do with it
Regardless of which variety of choy you wind up with, they’re all delicious and there’s a lot you can do with them.
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) bok choy 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.
My suggestion: Separate the bok choy, 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.
The recipe below is very classic, using Chinese rice wine and soy sauce, but consider using Champagne as your broth, or mushroom stock, and hoisin or oyster sauce as your flavor agent. I’m tempted to try pomegranate molasses or balsamic vinegar next time.
Lots of recipes call for the addition of diced bacon or ham to start off a bok choy stir-fry; what if we added a thinly sliced apple to the stalks, too?
Deep-fried chiffonade as a garnish?
Below, a classic recipe to get you started and use as a template. Ten minutes is all you need, start to finish!
Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Through Preservation
Ferment it and make kimchi! The process of lacto-fermentation results in pro-biotic enzymes that revive the digestive system and boost our immunity.
Stir-Fried Baby Bok Choy
Adapted from Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge by Grace Young
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons neutral oil
3 quarter-size slices of fresh ginger
1 pound baby bok choy (about 6 bunches)
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
In a small bowl, combine the water and rice wine and soy sauce.
Separate the bok choy into stalks. Trim the very end of each stalk with a sharp knife. Place the stalks in a bowl of water to rinse. Cut the stalks into 2-inch-long pieces, then the leaves, and keep in separate piles.
Heat a wok (or a wide skillet about 14 inches) over heat high until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact.Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the oil, then add the ginger and stir-fry for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the bok choy stems and stir-fry for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the stems are coated with oil. Swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil, and add the leaves. Stir-fry until the leaves are limp, about 90 seconds. Pour the liquid mixture into the wok. Cover and cook for about 30 seconds, then remove the cover and cook for an additional 1 minute, until the bok choy is that balance between crisp and tender.
Makes 4 servings.