Bok Choy Recipes

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The Many Faces of Brassica oleracea

Our story begins on the windswept, limy cliffs along the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, perhaps 4000 years ago.  Here grew a leafy herbaceous plant with succulent, edible leaves that modern botanists call Brassica oleracea.  In this part of the world plants were able to grow throughout the year, thereby providing an important source of vitamins and trace elements during even the winter months.  It thus became an important part of the diet of the people living by these shores.  Eventually its seeds were collected and plants were grown within human settlements, where it was spread across Eurasia. 

This barely-domesticated plant looked very close to what we now know as ‘kale.’  The name used to identify this crop descends far back into Eurasian civilization, with ‘kaulis’ being the likely term used in the hypothesized Proto Indo-European language.  From this root springs varied names across the ancient world:  The Hindi called them ‘kopi’; the Tartars ‘kappes’; the Greeks ‘kaulion’; the Romans ‘coles’; the Anglo-Saxons ‘colewyrts’.  From these come the German ‘kohl’, the Norwegian ‘kaal’, the Spanish ‘col’, the Scottish Gaelic ‘kale’ and the English ‘collards’. 

Sometime before 3000 years ago, people began selecting for varying and different traits from within this single plant, giving rise to a shocking variety of vegetables.  It is now hard to imagine that kale and collard greens, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts all originated from the same wild plant. Within each, a different part was bred to be the focus for consumption. 

We start with ‘kale’ and ‘collards’ (known botanically as the Acephala Group) which represents those crops most closely related to the primeval wild plant:  in these, selection was for the quantity, size, color, and appearance of the leaves.  Later (perhaps 2000 years ago), farmers in the Mediterranean began selecting for plants with larger and more dense flower heads, with thicker and more succulent stems supporting those flowers.  The varieties in which the flower heads and stems remained green became ‘broccoli’ (the Italica Group) while those which were selected to be light-green or white became ‘romanesco broccoli’ or ‘cauliflower’ (the Botrytis Group).  At this same time, plant breeders in China and Southeast Asia independently bred a plant similar to broccoli but with larger leaves, a somewhat smaller flower head, and a slightly more bitter flavor (the Alboglabra Group).  These are called ‘kai-lan’ or ‘Chinese broccoli’.  While broccoli initially did not stray far from its Mediterranean roots, cauliflower rapidly spread east across the near east to India, where it became an important part of the regional diet.  Within the last few decades modern plant breeders have further selected for a number of additional cauliflower colors including orange and purple. 

Northern European farmers continued developing this plant.  Around 1000 years ago, during the Dark Ages, plant breeders began selecting for kales with shorter and shorter distances between leaves along the stem.  This eventually gave rise to cabbages (the Capitata Group); in fact ‘cabbage’ is derived from ‘caboce’, the Old French word for ‘head’.  The crinkly-leaved Savoy cabbage was developed by German gardeners only 300 years ago.  During the late Middle Ages, about 600 years ago, another group of Northern European farmers began selecting for kales with thicker stems to create a ‘kale turnip’.  This became kohlrabi (the Gongylodes Group) from the German ‘kohl’ (kale) and ‘rabi’ (turnip).  It rapidly spread east across Eurasia to Siberia and India.  At this same time, plant breeders in the Low Countries began selecting for tall kales that produced small leafy heads on the axillary buds above each leaf.  These became Brussels sprouts (the Gemmifera Group). 

The story does not quite end here.  Brassica rapa is a closely related species which was initially domesticated in Europe around 4000 years ago and rapidly spread east into India, China, and Japan.  It was selected for various traits including oil rich seeds, numerous fleshy leaves (the eastern ‘cabbages’ and ‘mustards’ which include mizuna, bok choy, and napa cabbage), thick tuberous roots (turnips), and fleshy leaves and flower stalks (broccoli rabe).  This species can hybridize with Brassica oleracea, creating a new species (Brassica napus) which has a different number of chromosomes (n = 19) from its two parents (Brassica oleracea, n = 9; Brassica rapa, n = 10).  This new species was then similarly selected for oil rich seeds (rapeseed, which is known in North America as the less violent-sounding ‘canola’), tuberous roots (rutabaga / swedes), or dense leaf growth (Siberian kale).

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Perhaps the most iconic dish in the Korean cuisine is kimchi.  This spicy ferment of various vegetables (most often bok choy) is eaten at every meal, with the average Korean consuming 40 pounds per year.  Kimchi often reflects the season at which it is produced.  In the spring, kimchi is made of fresh potherbs and vegetables and tends to not be fermented.  In the summer, kimchi is made with radishes, cucumbers and other summer vegetables.  Autumn and winter kimchi is made from cabbage and a variety of other vegetables such as radish, parsley, pine nuts, pears, chestnuts, shredded red pepper, garlic, and ginger. These were traditionally allowed to ferment in large ceramic pots that were kept at a constant temperature by being buried underground.  While red chili pepper is the main seasoning in kimchi, it is only a recent addition, having been introduced to Korea only following Japanese invasions from 1592–1598. 

We developed the following vegan kimchi using as a starting point recipes provided by Copeland Marks in his 1999 The Korean Kitchen and Sandor Katz in his 2003Wild Fermentation.  In traditional kimchi fish sauce is used; here we use white miso which imparts a similar savory/salty flavor and more importantly also adds live microbial cultures into the mixture to assist in fermentation.  This replacement is really nothing more than applying the Japanese concept of pickling vegetables with miso (misozuke) to kimchi production.  We were quite pleased with the result.

1½ pounds bok choy, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons salt
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon ginger paste
8 green onions, cut into 3-inch pieces
¼ pound daikon radish, cut into julienne strips
3 tablespoons white miso
3 tablespoons red chili powder
3 tablespoons hot water

Toss the bok choy with the salt.  Place in a bowl and let stand at room temperature for 3 hours.  Drain, rinse in cold water, drain again, and squeeze out remaining water.

Mix together garlic, ginger, green onion, daikon, miso, chili, and water to make a thick, chunky paste.

Combine chili-garlic paste with wilted bok choy and mix well.  Pack tightly into a quart jar.  Cap the jar, but do not tighten.  Put jar into a bowl, and let ferment at room temperature for 3 (70° F) to 5 days (60° F) days.  After about 3 days the mixture will being bubbling, and will leak water and spice mix out of the top.  Don't worry, this is what is supposed to happen and the reason that you've put the jar into a bowl.  Once you can taste a bit of sour in the pickle, firmly cap the jar, wash the outside, and place in the refrigerator.  Your kimchi should keep for at least 3-4 weeks.


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Hot & Sour Bok Choy

This is a quick and easy way to cook any Chinese ‘cabbage’, a vegetable which is actually more closely related to turnip.  It is as good cold as it is hot.  Szechwan peppercorns are the aromatic fruits of a bush in citrus family, and are available at any oriental market.  Grind them using a clean coffee or spice mill, or in a mortal and pestle.  If you can’t find any, you can substitute coarsely ground white or black peppercorns; the dish will be just as authentic (some versions actually call for pepper), though the flavor will be a little different.

5 tablespoons oil
3 dried small hot chiles 
½ teaspoon Szechwan peppercorns, coarsely ground
1 Chinese cabbage, cut into 1 inch dice
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
¼ teaspoon sesame oil

Heat wok; add oil and let come to a moderate temperature.  Add chiles, stir for a few seconds, then add ground peppercorns.  Increase heat to high; add cabbage; stir fry for 3 minutes.  Add rest of ingredients, toss together, and serve.

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