Thursday, February 11, 2010

Growing, buying, cooking Bok Choy

Tonight I will begin a new series of posts on Asian vegetables. My intention is to share growing information with my vegetable gardening friends, buying information for those not yet ready to grow the particular vegetable I will be featuring, and passing along a recipe for those who need a step in the right direction. I'm sure there are numerous cookbooks on "how to cook a stir-fry in 20 minutes or less", I don't guarantee my recipes will be quick. I don't guarantee you'll find all the ingredients at your local supermarket. I do guarantee my recipes will be the real deal - the comfort food that Chinese people really eat for dinner - The delicacies on the "secret" menu shared exclusively with Chinese customers at Chinese restaurants (this is not just a myth!). If you have experience with the vegetable I'm featuring (grown/cooked/eaten), I'm also interested in your feedback!


For the first in the series, we shall start with the most obvious of Chinese greens - bok choy, known as pak choi if you're the type that likes to spell things uniquely, brassica chinensis if you're the scientific type, Chinese cabbage if you're the informal sort, or "white vegetable" if you want to be literal about it. Bok choy can be eaten uncooked, but most Chinese families enjoy their bok choy either stir-fried or braised. Bok choy can grow to the size of celery when mature, but many people prefer the more tender baby bok choy. The leaves can be peppery in taste, but when cooked, a lot of the bite disappears. Despite it's "obvious-ness" in the great realm of Asian vegetables, this cabbage is really a staple in Chinese diets. One reason may be because it packs a healthful punch. It has no fat or cholesterol and like several other dark leafy greens, contains Vitamins A and C, fiber, protein, folate, calcium, and iron. Another factor in it's popularity might be the ease with which it grows.

Plant Your Own Bok Choy...

If this sounds like your kind of green, grab your handful of seeds now and get ready to plant. Bok choy is a cold-weathered crop and can be grown in the spring and/or fall. Its short harvest time means you'll enjoy your first crop in about 30-50 days. In the spring, start transplants 4-6 weeks before your last frost date. After last frost, transplant about 6-12 inches apart in rows 18-30 inches apart. The smaller varieties can be spaced closer together. If you choose to directly sow seeds, wait until after your last frost date. Though bok choy can withstand cold temperatures, if young plants are exposed to frost, they can bolt. On the flipside, just like lettuce, if you're sowing seeds directly, a little shade will protect them from going to seed if it gets too hot. To directly sow, plant seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep about 1 inch apart in wide rows. Seeds will germinate in about 7 days. Thin to 6-12 inches when plants are a few inches tall. Enjoy the thinnings in salads or soups. Keep bok choy consistently watered.

If you're buying your bok choy, shop as you would for any lettuce or cabbage. Look for firm stems and abundant green leaves.


Bok choy can be eaten uncooked in a variety of salads, is great in soups, and found in stir-fries, hot pots, noodle dishes, and just about most dishes. This recipe below is a "family recipe". Though I'm sure you've seen some Chinese dishes with all the fanfare, this is an every day, simple, wholesome, and delicious recipe that a typical family might enjoy any night of the week. This is my mom's Bok Choy with Ground Pork. She chose to use ground pork (you'll notice a very small amount) only because she had it available, but it's possible to mix it up with sliced beef, pork, or chicken. Alternatively, consider adding a vegetarian protein in lieu of meat, or leave the protein out altogether and cook a side dish. Bok choy offers great versatility.

Bok Choy Stir Fry

  • 1/4 pound of ground pork
  • 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 pound bok choy
  • ground pepper and salt to taste
  • about 5 cloves of minced garlic
  • cooking oil
  1. Split bok choy lengthwise, rinse thoroughly, and drain. Be careful to remove all dirt.

  2. Marinate ground pork with soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and cornstarch.

  3. Lightly stir fry meat in oil until just cooked. Remove and set aside.

  4. Add more oil to pan if necessary to measure about 4 tablespoons. When hot, add bok choy and stir for a minute. Add minced garlic to the top of the bok choy (this simple trick prevents burning the garlic and producing a bitter stir-fry). Cover and cook for a few minutes, turning occasionally. The bok choy is ready when just tender. You'll know because the color will change to a bright, bold green.

  5. Add cooked pork, stir till heated through.
  6. Add salt and ground pepper to taste. Chinese cooks will also add a sprinkle of sugar to taste. Enjoy!


  1. Hi Wendy~~ You're a woman of many talents. This looks delish.

  2. Yes Wendy, that vegetable is very popular also with non-Chinese Asians. Here in the Philippines, we call it pechay and we have many varieties and recipes, however i don't cook it other than sautee with other vegs and some shrimp or chicken. You are right the tanginess is removed by cooking. However, i saw a Japanese blog here where it is germinated just for 2-4 leaves including the cotyledons and eaten as salads. He just uses some plastic food containers on the ledges and has ready salads. I will be waiting for your more posts on these vegs. thanks.

  3. Now I might have to start growing this, it sounds like a good kind of all-purpose green. And I could use more of that in my diet. Also, thanks for the recipe, I will have to book mark it.

    Thanks for commenting on my daughter's post, so sweet!


  4. Yum... you've tempted me to squeeze this green into the spring garden. It sounds fantastic. :)

  5. Thanks Grace!

    Andrea - I guess he was just using bok choy as sprouts - a great idea! I think sprouting even more concentrates the healthful benefits.

    Rosey - your girls have come up with interesting posts! Can't wait till next Friday to see who's up...

    Meredith - I'm glad you'll be able to squeeze some bok choy in!

  6. I like Bok choy. Thanks for the tips on the garlic. I usually fry garlic first. I will use your method next time. Garlic is too precious to be burnt ;-) I do not use cornstarch but I know that's the the correct way. I drizzle soy sauce (not salt) to taste at the end.

  7. Yay..wonderful post! This is an awesome idea..i will be looking super-forward to this series! Excellent!
    Have agreat night!

  8. I'm thoroughly confused by all the various Asian brassicas. For example, Tat-soi. I think it's another type of bok choy? Anyhow, I grew it for the first time last spring and we liked it a lot. I'll definitely try your recipe.

  9. Thanks Kiki! I hope you'll enjoy it!

    Stephanie - you're right about the garlic! Adding garlic to a cold wok is also supposed to prevent burning, but I find the flavor of food more intense when cooking in a hot pan/wok.

    Entangled - I'm glad you posed this question. I think there are subtle difference just as there are in the lettuces we commonly eat like - mache versus romaine versus iceberg versus arugula. I hope to demystify some of this. Hopefully I'll be able to precisely explain some of the subtle differences through this series of posts!

  10. I am 57 years old and having been growing my whole life. I have never heard of anything bolting due to cold...are you sure you did not mean HEAT? I am growing Poi Choy for the first time but as a master gardener I am not worried. I am just looking on websights for information and ran across yours. Just wondered if your comment was a misprint. Thank you!

    1. Hi Sonia - thanks for your question! No, not a typo, but I think I could have explained a little more fully. I just did a post on Asian greens and bolting. Basically, cold bolting happens when a plant faces some cold snaps. It sort of sets the wheels irreversibly in motion even if it doesn't bolt as an immediate reaction to the cold. Anyway, once the weather reaches a certain temp, the plant will bolt.


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