If you grew up in a small town without very many Asian restaurants, you may not know what bok choy is. However, this leafy green is one of the most popular vegetables in many parts of the world. It is closely related to cabbage and has a mild flavor that makes it a great stepping stone to enjoying other greens.
Unfortunately, bok choy is not available in every grocery store and if your town lacks an Asian market, you may not be able to get your hands on it. Luckily, there are several substitutes that can give your recipe that classic bok choy flavor and texture.
These bok choy substitutes include:
- Napa cabbage
- Regular cabbage
- Red cabbage
- Mustard greens
- Collard greens
- Swiss chard
- Pea shoots
Bok Choy Overview
If you didn’t grow up in an Asian household, you may not even know what bok choy is.
Bok choy is a leafy green vegetable that is commonly referred to as Chinese cabbage due to the prominent position it takes in many Chinese dishes. It is closely related to other cabbages, like napa cabbage and red cabbage, but has a much more mild flavor.
It also has a different shape, growing in long leaves and not forming the ball-like head that most other cabbages make.
Bok choy is usually cooked, but its flavor and texture are mild enough that you can also use it raw. For a fusion between two Asian cultures, you can even make kimchi that is based around bok choy instead of the more traditional napa cabbage.
Can I Replace Spinach with Bok Choy?
Spinach and bok choy are well-known substitutes for each other. They both have relatively mild flavors which makes them popular vegetables for veggie-haters who prefer to avoid the flavor of vegetables at all costs. However, they are not perfect substitutes for each other and should not be exchanged in every recipe.
If you are making a spinach salad then it is not recommended that you add bok choy. Bok choy has a more rigid texture and can also cause stomach upset when eaten raw. It is technically in the same family as both cabbage and broccoli so if you are sensitive to those foods, it is best to avoid eating raw bok choy.
Another time to avoid bok choy is if you are using cooked spinach for the texture. When cooked, spinach becomes very soft and delicate, allowing it to virtually disappear into many dishes. Bok choy does not do this and will remain a prominent ingredient in your dish.
If you don’t like having the texture of vegetables in your food, you should avoid replacing spinach with bok choy.
What is a Good Substitute for Bok Choy?
Although bok choy is pretty available in most Asian markets, it can be tricky to find it in a standard American grocery store. You may be able to find it in the lettuce section, but even then it may come in and out of season.
Fortunately, there are a couple of good bok choy replacements that are more commonly available.
One of the most popular substitutes for bok choy is spinach. This leafy green has a mild flavor and texture which makes it a great option for picky adults or kids who hate the strong flavors of some vegetables.
Spinach performs well both in its raw form and cooked, it is also easy to digest for most people, unlike bok choy. The one difference that you’ll notice is that when cooked, spinach rapidly wilts and breaks down. If you are relying on bok choy as the structure of your recipe, spinach won’t fill that role.
When you go to buy spinach, you’ll likely notice two types, baby spinach, and regular spinach. The leaves of baby spinach are usually no more than a couple of inches across and are far more tender with a mild flavor. This type of spinach is the most common type in salads since it is easier to chew. It is also more expensive and is rarely sold in bulk.
Adult spinach has much larger leaves that can be more than 6 inches long. It still has a mild spinach flavor, but a much tougher texture that can be difficult for some people to chew. For this reason, adult spinach is typically used in cook dishes where the heat can help to tenderize the leaf.
2. Napa Cabbage
If you don’t like cabbage in most forms, you may be tempted to turn your nose up at this suggestion. However, believe it or not, napa cabbage is frequently considered the best substitute for bok choy in both flavor and texture.
Napa cabbage is different from the regular cabbage that you’ll see in most American supermarkets. It has smaller, more tender leaves and a milder flavor. This makes it easier to eat raw and a staple in many Asian dishes including kimchi, a type of fermented cabbage most popular in Korea.
Since napa cabbage has a more rigid leaf than spinach, it makes a great substitute for bok choy in cooked recipes. You won’t have to worry about the leaves basically disintegrating in the broth as soon as it heats up.
If you have a sensitive stomach and are avoiding bok choy for those reasons, you may want to avoid napa cabbage as well. It has the same compounds that can cause gas and other unpleasant symptoms.
3. Regular Cabbage
If you live in a more rural area and don’t have access to napa cabbage, regular cabbage can also make a good substitute.
Remember to keep in mind that regular cabbage has a stronger flavor than napa cabbage and has even crispier leaves. This means that if you don’t like cabbage flavor in other recipes, it will be really apparent when using regular cabbage as a substitute.
Since it has a stronger flavor, regular cabbage should be limited to cooked recipes. This will ensure that the leaves are slightly more tender and minimize that strong cabbage flavor that so many people despise. It can also make it easier to digest if cabbage is hard on your stomach.
4. Red Cabbage
Just like the last option, red cabbage can also be a decent substitute. It’s not as mild as napa cabbage but doesn’t have the same level of peppery flavor that makes regular cabbage less appetizing. This is why if you see cabbage in a salad mix, it’ll usually be red cabbage.
The main downside of using red cabbage in your recipe is that when cooked, red cabbage releases a stain. This will turn any liquid purple-ish and can stain light-colored cookware. This won’t affect the flavor, but it is still something to consider if aesthetics are important to you.
5. Mustard Greens
If you’re looking for a widely available, super cheap bok choy substitute, look no further than mustard greens. Mustard greens are widely considered a “scrap” vegetable and because of this, they aren’t very popular and their price reflects that. They usually come in at only a fraction of the price of fresh bok choy.
You should be able to find bulk mustard greens in the lettuce section of your local grocery store. Just bag up how much you want and take some home.
The one thing to remember with mustard greens is that if you love bok choy due to its mild flavor, these are not the greens for you. Mustard greens, much like actual mustard, have a very strong peppery flavor. They can also be slightly bitter, especially if eaten raw.
Although this can be a downside to many people, think about how much seasoning it’ll save you. The flavor can also place an interesting spin on a normally mild dish and you’ll have dinner guests asking you where you got that flavor from.
6. Collard Greens
Another budget vegetable that you’ll usually find sold right next to mustard greens is collard greens. Collard greens have frequently been used in Southern American cuisine due to their low price and mild flavor.
The leaves tend to be very tough and it is never recommended to eat these raw. Traditionally, collard greens are cooked for at least two hours in a big pot, this allows them to be tender and absorb the flavor of all the other ingredients you add in. They are usually flavored with salt, pepper, and some sort of bone broth that is prepared shortly before.
If you decide to use collard greens as a substitute for bok choy, make sure to cook them for at least two hours. This will tenderize the leaves and make it so you can actually eat them without having to chew each bit for half an hour. Also, make sure to add plenty of spices that will help to enhance their normally mild flavor.
7. Swiss Chard
One of the more common substitutions that you’ll see suggested is swiss chard. Swiss chard is a leafy green that grows massive leaves, typically veined with either white or red. It is closely related to spinach and is full of vitamins like vitamins A and C.
Since it is not in the same family as cabbage, swiss chard is a better option if raw cabbage upsets your stomach and you want a milder green.
Unlike spinach, swiss chard holds up better in heat which means that you can use it in all of your favorite bok choy-including stirfry and soups. You can also eat swiss chard raw, you’ll just want to break it down slightly beforehand. This will make it easier to chew and allow it to blend in better with the rest of the ingredients.
To soften raw swiss chard you can use the same process that is often applied to kale. Just take some gloves, or just wash your hands, and massage the swiss chard for several minutes. This will begin the process of breaking the fibers down, making it much easier for you to chew.
8. Pea Shoots
As the last substitute for today, we have pea shoots. Most of the other substitutes on this list work best for adult bok choy when you are looking for that rigid texture and robust flavor.
However, not all recipes call for adult bok choy. Some recipes, especially uncooked ones, call for baby bok choy. Immature bok choy is more tender and has an even milder flavor than its adult counterpart. If you use one of the other substitutes on this list, you may notice that the texture is too difficult to manage and the flavor is too strong.
Pea shoots are a great substitute for baby bok choy because they have a sweet flavor and tender, but crisp texture. When you prepare pea shoots to be used as a baby bok choy substitute, try to just use the leaves. Sometimes the stalks can be a little bit tough and hard to chew, defeating the purpose of a baby bok choy substitute.
What’s the Best Substitute for Bok Choy From This List?
Out of all of these substitutes, the best one is napa cabbage. This substitute has the most similar flavor and texture, allowing it to be used in most recipes that call for bok choy. It holds up well when cooked and also has a mild enough flavor that it can be eaten raw.
If the idea of cabbage makes your stomach start boiling, the next best substitute is swiss chard. This vegetable has a super mild flavor and can be eaten raw or cooked. Since it is in the spinach family, it is also a good option for home cooks with more sensitive stomachs.
The next time you want to replicate that delicious soup you had at the local Chinese place, don’t feel like you have to drive over an hour to the nearest Asian grocery store. Even if you can’t get your hands on bok choy, you can use one of the many delicious substitutes on this list in its place.
Most of them are much easier to get your hands on, and there are several super economical options that are great if you’re on a budget. No matter where you are in the world, you’ll be able to open your eyes to a whole new world of flavor with these ingredients.