Bok choy (Brassica rapa subsp. Chinensis) – Alternatively spelled as pak choi, pok choy, pe tsai, pechay, Chinese white cabbage, white celery mustard, is a species of cabbage that is commonly used in Chinese dishes. Bok choy has the following physical characteristics: Wide, smooth, and flat blade-shaped leaves on one end, while the other is round and bulbous, similar to celery. You can eat bok choy either cooked or raw (as long as you rinse it very well).
This nutritious vegetable was initially discovered in China’s Huang He River Valley when archaeologists uncovered Chinese cabbage seeds that were around 6,000 years old. And meanwhile, Chinese immigrants, as well as Chinese-Americans, introduced bok choy to North Americans during the 19th century. This vegetable appears in countless Chinese and Asian dishes since time immemorial, but Americans have only started using this vegetable in their recipes very recently.
However, here’s a problem: Bok choy isn’t accessible in other regions, especially ones found outside of Asia. What if you want to make a dish and need a vegetable that also contains the same nutritious properties that bok choy has? This is where you need to start finding great alternatives for bok choy – And luckily, there are plenty.
If you’re unable to find bok choy is your nearest grocery store or farmers’ market, then we have come up with some substitutes to use in your cooking. These vegetables can help you adjust your recipes. But we need to learn a little bit more about what bok choy is:
What Does Bok Choy Taste Like?
If you do manage to find bok choy, are you planning to use it for a stir-fry recipe, or as an ingredient in a tasty soup? As it is a member of the cabbage family, it tastes similar to regular cabbage – But only lighter.
Those who eat it regularly describe bok choy as having a similar flavor to water chestnuts and spinach. It’s milder and sweeter than spinach, but with a peppery aftertaste. It also becomes slightly bitter if you chew it real hard. The leafy parts have a stronger taste compared to the bulbs and stems, but the flavor isn’t that overpowering.
The longer you keep bok choy in your fridge, the more bitter it gets. So if you’re not a fan of bitter vegetables, then cook it right away after you buy it from the market. Or, if you can, settle for younger bok choy instead.
Of course, adding the right ingredients to your recipe can tone down the bitterness too. Perhaps throw in a spoon of sugar or a splash of maple syrup or honey. It can counteract the bitterness that you might taste in your bok choy recipe.
To further lessen the bitter flavor, you might want to also leave out the bigger outer stems from the vegetable.
What is Bok Choy?
Bok choy is an excellent Chinese cabbage that tastes great with soups, salads, and stir-fries. It has a flavor that’s reminiscent of spinach, with a hint of a peppery aftertaste. Cooking it also results in the leaves tasting crispier and tender. It is effortless to grow bok choy as it can withstand both hot and warm temperatures. The only thing you will need is fertile, loose soil and some water. Bok choy also requires a bit of shade, but it can take on direct sunlight, especially when the temperatures are very cold or humid.
Similar to cabbage itself, bok choy thrives in colder climates. But the warmer the weather gets, the bitter and more robust the leaves and stems get. But they do end up producing flowering shoots or plant bolts.
Common Types of Bok Choy
Technically, there are only two types of bok choy: Regular bok choy with the bigger stems and leaves, and the smaller baby bok choy. There are no differences between the two, except for a couple of things:
Baby Bok Choy
- Baby bok choy is harvested earlier, so as a result, their leaves are smaller and are a lot more delicate.
- It is a lot sweeter and is more commonly found inside salads and soups instead of stir-fries.
- Both stem and leaves have a brighter green color.
- It has a heartier flavor and a bitter taste.
- Cooks longer, making it excellent for stir-fries and other sophisticated Chinese dishes, like certain stews, soups, and braises.
- Has white stems and dark green leaves
Both regular bok choy and baby bok choy are easy to find in grocery stores, Asian grocery stores, or farmers’ markets.
When searching for great bok choy in a supermarket, take a look at the following: The stalks must not contain any brown spots, and the leaves should look fresh and not wilting.
Seal your bok choy inside a plastic bag, and store it in the vegetable container of your fridge. It’ll last there for about a week, so you have to cook it right away. Wash the vegetable thoroughly before using it in your recipe.
Some of the leaves will wilt in less than a week, so you have to cut those away before cooking. Cut the head in half lengthwise after rinsing, and take out the core. Then slice the stem into wedges or strips. Bok choy can be stir-fried, microwaved, boiled, or steamed.
Bok choy is rich in the following: Calcium, Vitamin C, Folacin, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, Iron, and Potassium. It is also fat-free.
So now that you’re familiar with bok choy and its health benefits, here are a couple of vegetables to try out in case you can’t find any in your nearest grocery store or market:
Top 10 Bok Choy Substitutes
Napa Cabbage (Brassica rapa subsp. Pekinensis)
Napa cabbage is also known as Chinese cabbage, dai bai cai, hakusai, baechu, or wombok. Its existence was first documented during the 15th century when its seeds were discovered near China’s Yang Tze River. The vegetable continued to spread across neighboring East Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea.
This is perhaps the best substitute for bok choy, as they both originate from the same country. Just like bok choy, Napa cabbages have green, rough leaves with a fibrous texture. The leaves retain their crispiness even after you boil or fry them. Also, its flavor and texture are a lot more delicate, compared to regular cabbage.
The most popular way to prepare Napa cabbage is kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine. You can also use the same cabbage for making salads, adding fruits to it like fresh orange slices or Kalamata olives, or something unique like bacon dressing. Other options include noodle salads, or as a filling for steamed dumplings or fresh spring rolls.
This vegetable is rich in antioxidants, making it suitable for digestion. It is also very low in calories, and eating it every day can even protect your body from diseases like cancer. Other health benefits include Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Vitamin B, Folic Acid, and Fiber.
Similar to bok choy, Napa cabbage absorbs the flavor of the food it’s mixed with, which is why it’s a common ingredient in soups like hotpots. You can also eat it raw. When buying this vegetable, look for firm green leaves that don’t look wilted or have holes in them (a cabbage with holes means that it’s been consumed by bugs).
Gai Lan (Brassica oleracea var. Alboglabra)
Gai lan is the local name of Chinese mustard greens. It is said to have originated in the Mediterranean and is even considered to be older than bok choy itself. It’s the oldest type of vegetable from the Brassica family. Gai lan has closer relations to European cabbage in comparison to Napa cabbage. It’s also related to other vegetables like European broccoli.
Unlike certain species of broccoli, however, the entire plant is cooked and eaten. This includes the stem, the leaves, and even the flowers. Gai lan has bluish-tinged leaves and white flowers. The flower heads look similar to regular broccoli, only smaller. It also tastes similar to broccoli, except the aftertaste is much bitter and overpowering.
Gai lan is commonly used in Chinese cuisine. A popular way of preparing it is making a stir-fry with garlic and ginger, or steaming it with oyster sauce or XO sauce. You can also find gai lan recipes in other Asian cuisines like Burmese, Thai, and Vietnamese food. If you’re having trouble finding gai lan in your farmer’s market or grocery, then broccoli is a great substitute.
This vegetable starts growing during the late summer season, and can already be harvested by the time late fall or early winter arrives. You can still plant gai lan seeds during the autumn season, and the little sprouts will survive all throughout winter. Similar to other broccoli-like plants, you should start harvesting and cooking gai lan before yellow flowers start appearing. If not, the stems can grow thicker and become tough, especially when the plant begins bolting.
Gai lan is fat-free, cholesterol-free, and is low in salt. Other benefits include Vitamins A and C. It is also a great source of Calcium and Iron.
Swiss Chards (Beta vulgaris subsp. Vulgaris)
Chards, which also go by Swiss chards, is a type of green leafy vegetable. Compared to its sibling vegetables from the Cicla and Flavescens groups, Swiss chards have bigger leaves and leaf stalks. During preparation for cooking, you need to separate the leaf blade from the stalks due to its size. A close relative of the Swiss chard is leafy spinach beet. Swiss chard leaves often sport a reddish or greenish hue, while the leaf stalks range from red, white, or a dull yellow.
Its common names include silver beets, beet spinach, leaf beets, seakale beets, or perpetual spinach. People have been cooking Swiss chards for centuries – Back in the day, they often get confused with regular beets, due to its red color.
Swiss chards are a biennial vegetable. Clusters of seeds start growing from June until October, depending on the month when you choose to harvest them. They are commonly found in the Northern Hemisphere. You can tell if they are ripe for the picking once they start developing sturdier stems, and if the vegetable itself grows slightly big – Although you can already start picking them even if the leaves are young. Growing Swiss chards takes a lot of work as you need to harvest them regularly. Each vegetable can produce three or more crops. Fresh Swiss chards have ribbed green shiny leaves.
A helpful tip is to rinse and cook them immediately after harvesting, as they tend to wilt and perish in less than 24 hours. Fresh Swiss chards are often used in omelets, stir-fries, soups, and salads. There are some organic restaurants out there that use the vegetable’s leaves as a substitute for flour-based tortilla wraps. The stalks and leaves are usually sautéed or boiled in water, which reduces the vegetable’s bitterness.
A serving of Swiss chard carries over 19 kilocalories. It is rich in Vitamins A, K, C, and E. It is also loaded with Potassium, Iron, Manganese, and Magnesium. Unfortunately, its nutrients do get reduced after you boil it in water, but it’s still healthy enough to eat. It’s low in fat, carbohydrates, fiber, and protein.
Yau Choy (Brassica rapa var. Parachinensis)
Yau choy is often confused with the aforementioned gai lan. In fact, yau choy was mistakenly called ‘Chinese mustard greens’ before gai lan was discovered. But the two of them are very different – Yau choy stalks are much skinnier, and they have yellow flowers instead of white. Yau choy also has a very tender taste and texture. The taste is very similar to spinach, but this vegetable is closely related to mustard plants more than anything.
Its stems and leaves sport a bright green color. When you’re buying yau choy at the supermarket or farmers’ market, check to see if the bottom of its stems are not dried out – If they aren’t, then this means that the vegetable is recently harvested and is very fresh.
Yau choy also goes by the following names: Chinese broccoli, yu choi, yow choy sum, and flowering Chinese cabbage. It is effortless to cook yau choy. Since the taste is rather delicate, it doesn’t suit recipes that practically drench the leaves in sauces or anything that’s overly salty or sweet. When you place fresh yau choy leaves in your dish, just adding chicken broth is enough.
You can find yau choy all year round. They’re not precisely a high-maintenance vegetable to plant and harvest, although the best time to plant the seeds is during the springtime until early fall. It grows all over China and has been around even during ancient Chinese times. Nowadays, you can pretty much find this vegetable in markets across Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as Asian grocery stores in Europe, Australia, and the US.
This vegetable is rich in Vitamins A and C and helps improve your skin condition. It also has loads of Iron, Potassium, and Calcium.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)
The common spinach is a leafy green flowering plant that’s mostly seen in West and Central Asia. Its leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, although the taste will differ from both. It is also great steamed, canned, dehydrated, or preserved. There are various types of spinach available, including water spinach and baby spinach. Spinach is a very versatile leafy vegetable and is excellent for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Spinach is a vegetable that is rich in Fiber, Potassium, Carbohydrates, Protein, Calcium, Riboflavin, Vitamin A, Vitamin K, and Vitamin C, as well as Iron, Folate, Magnesium, and Manganese. Its body is 91% water.
The first spinach is said to be grown in Persia around 2000 years ago and slowly made its way to Asian countries like China and Nepal. Its first name was the ‘Persian vegetable.’ In Europe, spinach started growing in France, Spain, and England during the 14th century. People would plant and harvest spinach as there were times when certain fresh vegetables weren’t available in the market.
You can usually find spinach sold in bags – Either in bunches or with loose leaves. Surprisingly, the fresher the spinach is, the more it lacks nutritional value. Nitrogen or air is sometimes injected into the bag to prolong its life. Inside a fridge, spinach will last for around one or two weeks.
Celery (Apium gravolens)
Celery is a common marshland-based plant that’s a part of the Apiaceae family. It is related to herbs such as parsley, spices like cumin, and other vegetables like carrots. Celery was first grown in the Mediterranean around 3000 years ago, but now it is found in markets and vegetable gardens all over the world. To grow celery, you will need sandy or clay-based soil, and a moderate climate that’s not too hot or cold.
Every part of the celery is pretty much edible. Its stalks, for instance, can be fried, boiled, baked, or eaten raw. They are a common ingredient in some soups, casseroles, sauces, salads, and omelets. A Bloody Mary cocktail is not complete without a celery stalk and tomato juice. It is said that adding celery to a dish can enhance its flavor potential. Cooking it will reduce its bitterness and release the sweet and fragrant components instead. The leaves, meanwhile, are often used as a topping.
Celery has a distinct look and is not hard to find in supermarkets. To ensure its freshness, check if the stalks are firm, and sport a bright green color. Do not purchase stalks that look wilted, especially if there are leaves attached or sport brown spots. Some people are allergic to celery and can end up in the hospital if they eat some.
This vegetable is often consumed by those who want to lose weight. It’s filled with Vitamin K, Fiber, Potassium, and Folate. It is also low in calories, fat, cholesterol, and carbohydrates.
Pea Shoots (Pisum sativium)
Like its name suggests, pea shoots come from pea plants – Specifically, from sugar snap peas and snow peas. Pea shoots have softer stems, delicate upper leaves, tiny flower buds, and curly pea plant tendrils. They are a common ingredient in Asian cuisine, especially Chinese cuisine. In Mandarin, they are called dou miao. Pea shoots also taste great when mixed with scrambled eggs to make an omelet, steamed, or sautéed with a bit of flavor.
Pea shoots usually grow in areas with colder climates. It is a winter crop, although you can still grow and cultivate them inside a greenhouse with just the right amount of sunlight and water. They start growing beginning November and can be harvested during March.
All parts of the pea shoots are edible. Older pea shoots have a somewhat stringy and tough texture and can be very difficult to eat even after it’s cooked. So it is suggested that you choose the younger ones when harvesting, as the leaves are not just tasty, but they’re crisp as well. They taste similar to green peas but have a fresher feeling in the mouth. It is advisable to give them a good wash after you buy them from the market, or before you cook them. This gets rid of bigger stems.
Pea shoots are packed with nutrients like Beta Carotene, Vitamin C, and Fiber. It also lowers cholesterol and blood sugar, which is great if you suffer from high blood pressure. Pea shoots are an essential part of a diabetic’s diet. Eating more of it can regulate your digestion and lower your risk of developing diabetes.
Cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. Capitata)
Cabbage is composed of a bunch of cultivars from the Brassica family. Their colors can range from white (actually pale green), leafy green, or reddish-purple. It is a leafy vegetable that grows annually and is descended from the wild cabbage. Its closest relatives include certain species of broccoli and cauliflower, as well as Brussels sprouts.
It is a well-known fact that cabbage contains loads of nutrients, and should be necessary for your diet. Eating your veggies lessens your risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes and just improves your overall health. And what’s more, it can promote a healthy complexion and make you lose weight.
Some may think that cabbage is only great in salads, sides, and wraps, but it is a very versatile leafy vegetable. Unstuffed cabbage casserole, for instance, makes the best weeknight dinner, and won’t make you feel too full before heading off to bed.
Nan Ling (Apium graveolens var. secalinum Alef)
Nan ling is also known as Chinese celery, kuen chai, kan-tsai, kin tsai, qin cai, kinchay, and kun choy. As its name suggests, you can mostly find it in plenty of Chinese dishes, as well as other types of East Asian cuisine. It is a vegetable that is grown all year round. Nan ling is known for its flavor-filled stalks and leaves, which you can eat both raw and cooked.
This vegetable grows in marshy areas, so its other name is wetland celery. It can survive in moist, humid environments and can grow up to fifteen inches tall. Growing your own batch of nan ling will require an adequate amount of sunshine, cold climate, fertile soil, and the right amount of shade. It does take a while to grow, but once you harvest it, the taste is worth it.
Nan ling is used as an ingredient in dumplings, soup, or as a side dish with oil. Be sure to wash the product first before you proceed with cooking, to remove its coarse outer strings.
Nan ling is often used for its medicinal properties. Traditional Chinese medicine experts will crush its leaves and create juice from it, to cure jaundice for babies, and measles, chickenpox, high fever, and indigestion for kids. The vegetable contains an active ingredient that lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol. It can also aid digestion, help you lose weight, and prevent constipation.
Amaranth Greens (Amaranthus gangeticus)
Amaranth is a reference to all sixty species of greens found in the Amaranthaceae family. It is of Greek origin, with the name translating to ‘the never-fading’. It is known for its gorgeous flowers that maintain its color even after they get harvested.
This vegetable is a common ingredient in plenty of Asian cuisines, including China, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and Malaysia. However, their first appearance is traced all the way to Europe, some parts of Africa, and Mexico. You can eat both its stalks and leaves, as they have the same nutritional value as Swiss chards, beets, and spinach.
Amaranth greens are filled with Protein, Calcium, Iron, Beta Carotene, and Vitamin C. The seeds are often eaten in a similar way to quinoa or couscous and are rich in protein as well. They taste fantastic when mixed together with ham, poultry, bacon, anchovies, soy sauce, lemon, curries, walnuts, and so much more.
So Which Bok Choy Substitute is the Best?
There are several suitable options on which to replace your bok choy. All of these vegetables produce tasty flavors and can enhance a dish that you’re making in many different ways. But there are factors that can hinder your purchase such as the pricing and the availability of the vegetable itself.
If the accessibility of the ingredient is your issue, then go for the more common ones like cabbage, celery, spinach, or pea shoots. These can be found in the nearest supermarket and are very cheap.
Yau choy, gai lan, and nan ling are also very similar to bok choy when it comes to taste, so go for these three if you want a bit of authenticity to your cooking, especially if you want to cook an Asian-inspired dish. But accessibility to these three can be an issue if you live outside of Asia.
Swiss chards and Amaranth greens are great if you have enough time to spare from your daily activities and keep a close watch over your crops. Keep in mind that they’re a very high-maintenance vegetable and always require care and attention.
Out of these options, we have to go with Napa cabbage, as the texture and taste are pretty much the same, and they’re quite common, too.