I had given up on bok choy, because I was caught in a rut, adding it to my soggy stir-fries and not much else. I felt guilty, because I was really giving up on myself. It certainly isn’t bok choy’s fault—though it should take credit for causing so many impulse purchases.
I know I’m not alone. How can you resist that striking beauty? You see those curves, and that sharp contrast between white, crunchy stalks and dark green leaves, and next thing you know, it’s in your cart. You latch onto one halfway decent way to prepare it, and call off the search. Soon, you’re bored out of your mind.
When you’re in a rut, it’s not like the larger world doesn’t exist, it’s just that you can’t see it. With enough determination, you can maybe crawl out. But sometimes a little bump can help push you over the edge and into a well-lit world of options. In the case of my bok choy capitulation, that catalyst came in the form of a farmer at the Missoula Farmers Market.
Nancy is from northern China, and has limited English, a great garden, and a wealth of simple, vegetable-based recipes. I was at her stand for some garlic chives and nothing more, but she chose that morning to give me the hard sell on some heads of bok choy she had languishing. I had just given up on it, but I’ve learned it pays to say yes to Nancy.
She calls it bai cai, which means something along the lines of white cabbage, and she sealed the deal with a soup recipe called bai cai tang, which means bok choy soup. It’s mostly bok choy and potatoes, with a few seasonings. Thanks to the language barrier, I wasn’t able to get a perfect read on how she makes it, but I worked with what I understood, adjusting as I saw fit, and it was a hit. The only ingredient I use that probably wouldn’t be found in Nancy’s northern Chinese version is butter.
Nancy recommends adding tofu as a protein. I’ve also tried it with egg, shrimp, scallops, browned ground lamb, and Chinese BBQ pork, each of which becomes a new realm of flavor to play in. I have also tried an “all of the above” protein special, which was was pretty amazing.
But before you go crazy, I recommend starting with this simple base. Get a feel for the core flavor of the soup and then build slowly from there.
Bok Choy Potato Soup
This soup comes together in just a bit more time than it takes to boil some potatoes.
- 1 tablespoon bouillon paste
- 1 pound potatoes, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 pound bok choy
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1/2 ounce crushed ginger
- 1 small crushed shallot or part of an onion
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- Optional proteins: tofu, seafood, meat, egg (crack it in and let it cook)
- Garnishes and condiments: hoisin sauce, chives, chile paste, mayo, salt to taste
Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add the bouillon paste and potatoes. Simmer for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft.
While the potatoes simmer, clean the bok choy, as it can be dirty near the base. If you have baby bok choy, submerge them whole in clean water and drain them, repeating as needed.
For large bok choy, pull off each stem—or leaf, however you see it—and wash it separately. Then cut the white halves from the leafy halves of each unit, roughly in half. Chop the leaf part coarsely. Chop the stem part into sections of about an inch in length and keep separately. Trim the bottom of the base and slice it if you like, but definitely use it as it’s particularly flavorful.
When the potatoes are soft, add the butter, sesame oil, soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, crushed ginger and shallot, pepper flakes, and black pepper. Add the white parts of the bok choy, including the bases (if using baby bok choy, add the whole thing), along with any protein you may care to add. Cook for 5 minutes at a simmer. Add the bok choy leaves and cook for another 2 minutes.
Garnish as desired and serve.
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Montana.