Pak choy is a vegetable which has been cultivated in China for thousands of years. In addition to being widely used in Chinese cuisine, this vegetable is very popular in other parts of Asia as well. Many English speakers know pak choy as bok choy or pak choi, thanks to disagreement about how the Chinese word for this vegetable should be transliterated. Whatever you call it, this is a very versatile, tender, flavorful vegetable which can be used in a wide assortment of dishes.
This vegetable is also sometimes called “Chinese cabbage,” a reference to the fact that it is classified in the Brassica genus, to which cabbages belong. Brassicas are also members of the mustard family, and they have a distinctive tangy, somewhat spicy flavor as a result. Brassica chinensis, as pak choy is more formally known, comes in a wide variety of sizes and colors, thanks to the development of specific cultivars.
Classic pak choy has white, crunchy stems and dark green leaves, both of which are edible. In China, the smaller the vegetable is, the more favorably it is viewed, because smaller plants tend to be more tender. Outside of China, some cooks seek out larger versions, as they are under the impression that bigger is better, but if you can obtain smaller vegetables, you may find that they are much more tasty; many markets sell young pak choy as “baby pak choy,” and it is growing easier to find. Big pak choy bunches tend to be woody and lacking in flavor.
Tender young pak choy only needs to be cooked very briefly, and the leaves take even less time to cook than the stems. Most cooks separate leaves and stems, throwing the leaves into a dish at the last minute to lightly wilt them before serving. The stalks can be allowed to cook a bit longer than the leaves, although many people favor a brief cooking time to leave the stalks crunchy and tender, rather than allowing them to soften.
Many cooks like to use this vegetable in stir fries, and it can also be used in soups, curries, spring rolls, and a variety of other dishes. Its flavor is very mild, with a hint of a tangy bite which betrays its place in the mustard family, and this vegetable is also very healthy. It is high in calcium, like other Brassicas, and it also has high levels of vitamins A and C.