Ahoy, Bok Choy

Bok Choi Seedlings

Cross-posted at Eating Well Magazine


They are already up! The Bok Choy (a variety of chinese cabbage) seeds have sprouted, only three days after they were planted.  Mind you, what I see are but the first embryonic leaves, the cotyledons. The true leaves, bok choy’s particular personality, have yet to emerge. But the miracle has happened: a seed the size of the period at the end of this sentence has sent down delicate hairs for roots to drink water, and a tiny stem with primitive leaves has shot up in search of light.

What is it about that first little flash of green that brings such a jolt of joy (when outside the south window, even with sun, the temperature is 22, and there’s a drift of snow four feet high)?  I suspect I am in the grip of a some primal response: good morning, new growth after our winter of frozen soil and darkness!

It is Barbara’s fault I have planted Bok Choi for the first time ever.

I picture her beautiful recipe of baby bok choy heads steamed lightly, and tossed in soy sauce, rice wine, with garlic, lemongrass, vietnamese cinnamon, thai chili, peanut oil, a little sugar, and a little salt. In fact, it is because of this recipe alone that I plant this sturdy, fast growing little vegetable.

Barbara's Lightly Steamed Bok Choi

Bok Choy has long seemed like simply a slimy vehicle for over thickened sauce (rich in cornstarch and MSG) in chinese restaurant dishes, so I have not grown it. But  last week Barbara changed my mind. When not overcooked or smothered, bok choi’s taste is light and subtle with a hint of pepper. The combination of the crispness of the white stalk with the just wilted green of the leaves works well on the tongue: crunchy and delicate at the same time.

It turns out that the cabbage family (Brassica), of which bok choi is a member, is much bigger than I imagined. There are cabbage family members that originated from weeds in the Mediterranean region (Brassica oleracea) like cabbage and broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and kohlrabi, and another group from weeds in Asia (Brassica rapa). Bok choi (Brassica rapa chinensis) is Asian, along with turnips, broccoli rabe, napa cabbage, tatsoi and mizuna. It is related to Chinese kale, radish, and horse radish. Who knew?

Now I understand the origin of the peppery taste, the quiet echo of turnip, the subtle hint of horse radish.

I am imagining rows of sturdy little plants, whites stalks and centers, capped with green several weeks hence. Bok choi is tolerant of cold, so when the seedlings reach a good size, and the days are consistently warmer, I’ll transplant them outside.

There is something magical about the first true green live shoots when we live in a region that goes dormant in a winter  — and this particular winter has been so white, frozen, and muffled in  snow. Ahoy, bok choi, my particular first harbinger of spring.

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