If you’ve been experimenting with Chinese cooking you’ve probably noticed that a lot of recipes call for a vegetable that isn’t often used in other cuisines, bok choy. Bok choy is a popular ingredient throughout far Eastern cuisines, but it’s most often associated with Chinese cooking.
A slightly spicy, crunchy, refreshing-tasting vegetable, bok choy has a very distinct flavor. It’s starting to be stocked more often in grocery stores, but it can still be difficult to find in some areas, especially if you’re shopping out of bok choy season.
Here’s what you need to know about this delicious vegetable, and the best substitutes you can use in your cooking if you don’t like bok choy, can’t find it, or are worried that it might be too much of a new flavor for your friends or family.
What Are Bok Choy?
Bok choy are a type of Chinese cabbage, though they don’t look that much like the cabbage you’re probably used to. Instead of growing in a tight ball of leaves with a central stem, bok choy have longer looser leaves and a bundle of pale green stems at the base of the plant.
All bok choy plants are edible, but you’ll notice that different parts of the plant have different tastes and textures instead of being fairly uniform like other cabbages.
There are two basic types of bok choy available, bok choy and baby bok choy. Baby bok choy are milder, slightly sweeter, and more tender. Recipes will call specifically for bok choy and baby bok choy. It’s worth knowing that you can always use baby bok choy in place for bok choy, but if a recipe calls for baby bok choy you shouldn't substitute full-grown bok choy instead.
How Is Bok Choy Used In Cooking?
Bok choy is an incredibly versatile vegetable. It’s a hardy vegetable that can be roasted, sauteed, chopped up, and added to stir-fry, or even added to soups and stews as a leafy green.
Almost any way you would use cabbage, you can use bok choy the same way.
Bok choy can also be used in salads, both as a cooked ingredient or a raw one.
The Best Bok Choy Substitutes:
Like all vegetable substitutes, it’s a good idea to look for substitutes that are going to be both a flavor and a texture match. If you can’t get both, try to figure out which characteristic is more important for the dish, and choose the best substitute according to that characteristic.
Baby Bok Choy
Of course, one of the most natural substitutes for full-size bok choy is baby bok choy. This vegetable is a little smaller and milder than the full-size version, and can sometimes even be added to soups and stews whole without chopping. These smaller bok choy just need to be washed thoroughly before you add them to the dish.
If you are using baby bok choy instead, consider adding a little more of the vegetable than the recipe calls for, since the flavor won’t be as strong as the adult vegetable.
Nutritionally, adult and baby bok choy are almost identical, and both are highly nutritious.
Love bok choy? It’s used in both Hunan and Szechuan cuisines, but here are the key differences between the two.
Napa cabbage is another ideal substitute. It’s more closely related to bok choy than other cabbages and also has a more similar shape and flavor, including that different colored parts of the vegetable have a slightly different flavor. It's hardy, like most cabbage, and just as versatile as bok choy.
Fortunately, the flavor is also very similar, just less spicy than a typical bok choy (which gives more of a tingly flavor than true spice heat).
This kind of cabbage is also highly popular, which means that it can be easier to find in a lot of situations compared with bok choy.
Another good option for substituting bok choy, swiss chard is another hearty green that holds up well to similar kinds of cooking. It works best in soups and stir-fries, but you can get creative with this vegetable.
The real trick is that swiss chard isn’t the same color as bok choy, so the color of your dish, in addition to the flavor and texture, will be different from the original recipe.
Swiss chard also brings a more garlicky flavor. That can be great in garlicky dishes but might make it less desirable in dishes where other flavors are first and foremost.
Kale is one of the go-to healthy greens you can use in your cooking. Incredibly tough and hardy, this vegetable wants to cook a little longer than bok choy, but it’s a great healthy alternative.
The trick with this option is that kale has a stronger and slightly more bitter flavor, so you might have to adjust the other ingredients and seasonings to really balance out this substitute.
The good news is that you can almost always find kale at the grocery store thanks to its popularity. Newer varieties of kale are also a little easier to work with and less bitter, so you can shop for those variants instead if you don’t like the flavor of regular green kale.
Going in the opposite direction, spinach is a softer, more mild flavored green that you can also use to replace bok choy.
Spinach is almost as versatile as bok choy, but you shouldn’t cook it for as long. Spinach tends to wilt down to almost nothing when it’s cooked for very long, so you’ll want to add it toward the end of cooking. You’ll also want to add more spinach to help make up for the cooked volume change and may need to add it in phases. Add a little, let it shrink, add a little more.
However, adding too much spinach can give your meal a very strong spinach green flavor, so you may have to play around with different recipes to get the right balance between the spinach and the other ingredients.
White cabbage, or regular green cabbage, is another option. It’s sweeter in general than bok choy, but the texture is similar, and it cooks down to a similar texture as well.
You can use this substitute in a 1:1 and add it at around the same time in the recipe as you would add bok choy.
However, the flavor of regular cabbage is significantly different. Adding a little more white pepper, or pairing the cabbage with mustard greens can help give you a bok choy like flavor.
Red cabbage also works. The flavor and treatment of the cabbage are basically the same as white cabbage. However, the color is significantly different, and if you’re adding it to an acidic recipe, you might accidentally turn your food blue.
That’s because red cabbage is a PH indicator, so high acidity food makes it blue.
Nan Ling or Chinese Celery
Nan Ling, often stocked as Chinese celery, looks a lot like Western celery but does have a slightly different flavor. It's a bit like a cross between celery and bok choy, which makes it a perfect bok choy substitute.
Just remember that this vegetable is going to have a slightly milder flavor, and that the leaves are more flavorful than the stalks of the vegetable. You can add the leaves, or not, depending on what you want for the flavor.
Mustard greens are getting to be a bit more common, and they are a good bok choy substitute because they have a similar spicy tingly flavor. However, they can turn bitter in soups, so they are best either in combination with another substitute that doesn’t turn bitter, or in stir fries where the greens aren’t cooked for as long.
Another greens option, turnip greens are almost the opposite of mustard greens. They start off a little bitter but get sweeter and more savory both as they cook. They are a great addition to stir-fries, curries, and soups where the greens are going to cook a little longer.
Yu Choy or Chinese Broccoli
Yu Choy, or Chinese Broccoli (no, it doesn’t look like broccoli) is another good option, especially if you don’t actually like the strong flavor of bok choy, because it has a similar but much milder flavor.
The leaves and the stems of both of these vegetables are edible, though a lot of people only use the leafy portion of the vegetable in their cooking because of the woody texture of the stems.
As a replacement for bok choy celery root shouldn’t be your first choice, but it is an option to add some tangy spice to the dish. Like mustard greens, you can use a little grated celery root in combination with another substitute to help make a better flavor match.
Don’t use too much, because this vegetable can be overpowering.
Leeks are another option. They aren’t terribly similar to bok choy, but they are warm and spicy, and leafy, so they add a lot of the same kinds of flavors to your cooking. Like bok choy, they can also be prepared in a wide variety of cooking, including chopped up in soups and stews, roasted, and added to stir fry.
The trick with leeks is that you need to wash them thoroughly, and it can take some experimentation to figure out how many leeks you need to replace your bok choy. Want more ways to use these bok choy substitutes? Take a look at these 26 Asian Chicken recipes for more inspiration!