Pak choi is delicious in quick salads, stir-fries and Oriental cooking! Find out all about the origin of this tasty cabbage, whether you can still eat it once it has flowered and much more.
Pak choi (Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis) looks quite similar to chard (Betavulgaris ssp. vulgaris), which is why it is sometimes called “Chinese chard” in English-speaking countries. Many Asian dishes use pak choi, so it is no surprise that the main areas of cultivation are in Asia. However, in more recent years pak choi has also been cultivated on a larger scale in European greenhouses too and even out in open fields.
Pak choi: origin and characteristics
Pak choi – which translates as “white vegetable”and is often called pok choi, or bok choy in America – originates from East Asia where the largest cultivators are China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. It is not only an integral part of many traditional Asian dishes, but is also becoming ever more popular in UK cuisine and more widely cultivated in British greenhouses.
Pak choi comes in several different shapes and sizes. Some have white or light green stems that break easily, while others have red or green leaves. The spoon-shaped leaves of the plant will eventually form a round rosette, but unlike Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa ssp. pekinensis), they do not form a firm heart.
Pak choi tastes milder, juicier and more aromatic than Chinese cabbage. Indeed, as the taste has nothing in common with typical cabbage flavour, it is a great alternative for those who usually avoid it. Unlike most other types of cabbage you can use the whole plant from the leaf all the way to the light, juicy leaf veins.
If you want to grow pak choi yourself you will need a loose, nutrient-rich soil and mild weather. For growing in pots and window boxes, we recommend our Plantura Organic Tomato & Vegetable Compost which has a compost-rich, loose structure and contains all the necessary nutrients for the first growth phase.
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When growing pak choi, you want to try and avoid bolting, which is when the plant begins to grow flowers and go to seed. While the lemon-yellow starred flowers are very pretty, they tend to make the leaves woody and no longer suitable for harvesting. The flowers and buds are safe to eat and have a deliciously hot and spicy flavour. However, you may prefer to leave the plant to flower and save the seeds for propagation later. Find out more on propagating pak choi below.
It is not just long summer days with more than 10 hours of daylight that can start flowering – low temperatures can also trigger bolting. If you want to ensure a good yield of pak choi that does not run to seed too soon, choose a bolt-resistant seed variety. It is also advisable to plant at the end of June when the days are shorter, but still summery warm.
Pak choi care
Pak choi is quite low maintenance, as long as you have the right location. The plants need a lot of water and should be well mulched and watered regularly in dry summers. A nutrient-rich soil and plenty of water will ensure the plants grow quickly and produce a good yield. We recommend working granules of slow-release fertiliser into the surface around the plant. Our Plantura Tomato Food is ideal for this as it has all the necessary nutrients to nourish your plant for a good two months until it is ready to harvest.
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Pak choi: harvest, store and preserve
Pak choi can be harvested from August to the end of September. You can either take the whole plant or use the “cut and come again” method – take the leaves, as and when required, from the outside and work your way inwards to get the most from the plant. You can still harvest flowering plants, but they will not be as tender and the stems might be slightly woody.
Wrapped in a damp towel, pak choi will keep for a few days in the fridge. However, if you dig up the whole plant, roots and all, it will keep in a cool, dark place for up to 2 weeks. It is important to cover the roots with sand for this method to preserve the plant as long as possible. We don’t recommend freezing pak choi, as it turns mushy and tastes bland when thawed.
Pak choi propagation
It is easy to save seeds from heirloom pak choi varieties for propagation. For the plants to flower and produce seeds, they need to be exposed to low temperatures or more than 10 to 14 hours of daylight. So, sow the heirloom seeds directly in May or plant the young plants outdoors (unprotected) from April onwards to encourage the plants to bolt.
After insects have pollinated the pak choi flowers, typical cabbage seed pods form. Wait for the pods to dry and turn brown before cutting off the seed stalks. Allow the pods to dry a little more indoors; you will know if they are ready to harvest If the seed pods have opened a little or you can hear the seeds rustle in the pod. The seeds can germinate for anywhere between three to five years if stored in a cool dry place.
Pak choi: pests and diseases
Pak choi is quite robust and not generally susceptible to disease, however there are a few things that can cause problems:
- Cabbage hernia occurs when the plants are grown in the same spot repeatedly. We advise rotating your crops and ensuring that cabbage is only grown in the same location every four to five years.
- Cabbage white butterfly have been known to target this type of cabbage from time to time, eating holes in the leaves and sometimes boring into the heart of the cabbage.
- Flea beetles (Psylliodes) can leave lots of small holes in the leaves, weaken the plant and damage its appearance. To avoid these pests, make sure the soil is always slightly moist – applying mulch helps with that. There are also very fine-meshed nets available in specialist shops that protect young plants from such infestations.
Pak choi: health benefits and uses
In addition to high levels of vitamins B and C, pak choi also contains large quantities of minerals such as magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron. Like most other cabbages it also contains other plant substances such as mustard oils and flavonoids, which have an antimicrobial effect. All in all, pak choi is a very healthy vegetable that can only benefit your diet.
Pak choi can be enjoyed in a number of ways – both raw and cooked – as it is much easier to digest than other types of cabbage. Raw pak choi in a salad is a wonderful way to use the vegetable. If you haven’t tried it yet, you should! In western cuisine, however, it is generally prepared in a similar way to chard or spinach, and is either stir-fried, braised or steamed and served as a side dish. Blanching is probably the best way to retain minerals when cooking this tasty cabbage. When sautéing or stir-frying pak choi, do not leave it in the pan too long as it quickly disintegrates and loses all those valuable vitamins.
Pak choi comes in many different varieties and colours, from mini or baby pak choi to red leafed pak choi. Read our article on pak choi varieties to discover the diversity of this cabbage.