words: Rachel Vogan
With strong Asian connections, Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis is a bit of a mouthful, but simply put, it is part of the cabbage family. Pak choi – known also as bak choy – is a hero crop that requires only a small patch of fertile earth to flourish and is happy in cooler temperatures, hence this vegetable is a worthy candidate for gardeners all over the country to grow.
This robust and rather durable vegetable tastes even better than it looks. The lush, almost soft-looking green leaves are as tough as old boots. The contrasting juicy white midrib is sweet and packed with flavour. Pak choi is a good source of around 20 nutrients, including the highly sought after omega-3s, as well as the antioxidant mineral zinc.
Pak choi is versatile in the kitchen, too. Some enjoy it added to smoothies and energy drinks as it’s a good source of both vitamins A and C. Try it raw, shredded into rice paper rolls with a piquant dipping sauce laced with soy, ginger and sesame. Stir-fry with other Asian greens or lightly sautéed in butter on its own, and few will push this sweet and juicy vegetable to the side of the plate. Grilled on the barbecue it compliments meat dishes and, with a rather robust texture, it doesn’t disintegrate on the hot plate like other leafy greens, such as spinach and silver beet.
Growing tips and tricks
If you want something for a pot or a tub, this has to be at the top of the list. Pak choi has a very shallow root system, which makes it ideal for planting under other plants. Three plants can easily grow in a small pot. If you jam a few more in, harvest the smaller ones when they are a little smaller and leave the rest to fatten up to be chunky monkeys.
In the garden, blend in rich compost or a few handfuls of sheep pellets before planting. The more organic matter you get into the soil, the faster the crop will grow. If you have plenty of room, plant them trowel-distance apart. Full sun will give you the best results, although they do cope with a little shade. Their main requirement is watering at least twice a week, once plants are established.
Seeds germinate within a week or so and online catalogues have a great range. Sometimes seeds appear in Asian supermarkets, and you will find some slightly different varieties in these shops. Seed can be sown directly into the ground or into trays; they quickly germinate if soil is moist, but not boggy.
Seedlings are in the shops all year round. Plant six to 10 plants once a month, or more if you have plenty of mouths to feed. Slug and snails like to hunt them down, so lay plenty of bait to keep them away. To harvest use a sharp knife and cut off just above soil level, cook or use as soon as possible. While it will store OK in the fridge for a day or two, it’s at its best when used straight away.
You can leave the stem and root in the ground, more shoots will appear and these are edible, too. They won’t get as big as the initial plant, but they do taste pretty similar.
Ones to find
Seed catalogues have the widest range of seeds. Kings Seeds’ flowering one looks worth a try, unusual in that its flowering stalks are eaten, instead of its leaves. Delicious stir-fried, steamed by themselves or added to other vegetables or meat, stalks are best picked immediately after flowering starts. Leave three or four young leaves on the plant and successive stalks will then grow from the main stalk. Boost with a small dose of fertiliser after each picking, and a continued harvest will be enjoyed.
‘Joi Choi’ is a compact variety, with super dark-green leaves, more tolerant to cold. Baby pak choi, such as ‘Mei Quing’, is a ripper of a smaller crop, producing super-sweet heads with dark-green leaves contrasting with the thin and crunchy, pale lime-green stalks. ‘Red Choi’ will appeal to those who like a colour contrast, the flavour is the same and the stalks are a delicate pale green.