"the warp and woof of Chinese cookery" Joy Larkcom
It was my turn to do the supermarket shop yesterday and so I was on the lookout for something in the veggie line as all I really had in addition to the basic onions, potatoes and lettuce was some celery and carrots. I'm not quite as big a bargain hunter as my husband, but I do try to buy what is on special - well it's usually what is in season isn't it? And we should buy seasonally.
Anyway Coles had a special on what they called pak choy and bok choy (cheaper if you bought both), so I did. What I got was a couple of each of the above. Which I now find are basically the same thing - just at different stages of development.
"The general term 'bok choy' embraces several growth stages of the same plant: seedling, 'baby,' mature, and flowering." Elizabeth Schneider
You see I am really very ignorant of Asian greens. I remember one memorable occasion in, I think Borneo, when we were on one of those sales force junkets and we were taken to this amazing restaurant, where your particular group (the people on the table with you), went round the sort of market that was there, picking out what you wanted to eat - it ranged from lobster down to pak choy and various other unnameable green vegetables. Of course, being greedy, spoilt westerners we ended up with so much more than we needed - so much that by the time we got to the lobster we were full. But the dish I remember was a stir fried mix of various Asian greens with a spicy sort of dressing, which I now think was probably just garlic, ginger and chilli. This seems to be the basic way you cook these things. Ever since, I have wanted to reproduce the dish, but have never been able to. But then I don't think I properly researched it. I probably used Madhur Jaffrey's recipe in her World Vegetarian Cooking and it was probably OK but not brilliant. Of course, the occasion, played a huge part in that Borneo experience, adding hugely to the taste no doubt, but nevertheless I'm going to have another go. Perhaps with our favourite kebabs one day.
I also thought I had found the perfect recipe in the latest Coles magazine - Slow cooker sticky soy beef ribs, not that I have any beef ribs in the freezer - but no the pak choy that lies so delectably on the side of the plate is just extra decoration. There are no instructions for how to cook it.
So I have been having another look at how to cook them and trying to find some different things to do with them too.
Choi means vegetable in Cantonese apparently which is how the names get to be so confusing.
It's apparently amazingly nutritious - of course - and can be cooked, or even not cooked - in a number of ways. The main thing to remember is not to overcook and also to clean it first, as dirt gets down in the bottom. So cut off the bottom and rinse in cold water before you use it.
When I looked for recipes it was interesting to see who had recipes and who didn't. I'm pretty sure that Charmaine Solomon does and also I know that Madhur Jaffrey does, but the only other two Asian cooks represented on my bookshelves - Kylie Kwong and Luke Nguyen - did not. Neither did Donna Hay. So not much representation on the Australian front. The Brits, on the other hand seem to have embraced it. Well there are lots of Chinese restaurants in England and apparently it grows very well over there.
Nigel Slater is a huge fan.
"So there you are, stuffing the steaming leaves into your mouth, getting the hot sting of garlic and ginger and the deep savour of the oyster sauce, then - crunch - you bite into the chubby stems and the blistering juice squirts out. A sensational mouthful that makes our national dish of buttered broccoli look about as exciting as compost." Nigel Slater
And he offers a dish of Chicken with choi sum and lemon grass as well as various others. For he thinks that:
"Greens of any sort are comfortable with the knee-jerk seasonings of garlic, ginger and chilli, but I like them with lemon, too. If you are stir-frying, add some very finely shredded lemon grass to the garlic and ginger before you add the leaves. A good squirt from a lemon would do, too." Nigel Slater
The River Cottage people, on the other hand, are more into it's soothing qualities.
"There's a hint of mustardy flavour but its personality is mild and ameliorating - which is what makes it complement spicy food so well." Nikki Duffy - River Cottage A-Z
There are heaps of recipes out there for the quick stir-fried versions, with variations. Cook the ginger and garlic first, but in cold oil and frying pan, so that it doesn't burn, or add the garlic and ginger with the vegetable. Chilli - yes or no. A splash of soy sauce, broth or sesame oil or a bit of all of them - yes/no. Cook the whole thing, sliced down the middle together, or cook the white stems first and then add the chopped stems. Take your pick. Here are two versions, Garlicky bok choy from Bon appétit, and a grilled version - Grilled bok choy with sweet soy glaze from Serious Eats. Two different methods but you'd have to say the end result looks similar.
Or you can have it as a salad - Bok choy with capers - A Life (Time) of Cooking
Perhaps the most interesting recipe for me though was from the River Cottage people who covered steamed pak choy with a sticky prune sauce. You made the sauce with 50g pitted prunes, thinly sliced, 25ml soy sauce, 1 tsp clear honey, juice of 1 large orange, 1 tbsp mirin, 1 star anise, 1 tbsp sesame oil and a small pinch of chilli flakes. Put them all in a saucepan with 3 tbsp water cook for 4-5 mins until slightly thickened. Leave to rest for around a quarter of an hour before pouring over your steamed pak choy.
The Indians don't seem to be into this particular vegetable so much, more in the south than in the north, and when they do use it they seem to chop it and stir fry it with Indian spices.
"A Chinese meal is never quite the same without that little battered dish, its well-worn edges and its steaming mound of 'greens in brown stuff'." Nigel Slater
I think I shall probably be going the quick stir fry route. I found this very gourmet looking dish on the Great British Chefs website, but have no idea what it is or where to find a recipe. Not that I would be trying it anyway. But it's pretty, and there were various other delectable looking things on the same page..
Will see how I go with the stir fry and then maybe chop and slice and put it in something else? Maybe even soup.