Itty Bitty Baby Bok Choy in Vinegar-Oyster Sauce

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Itty Bitty Baby Bok Choy in Vinegar-Oyster Sauce by The Mala Market

Gilded Bok Choy

So I made some itty bitty baby bok choy stir-fried with loads of garlic and drizzled with Zhenjiang vinegar, oyster sauce and soy sauce for dinner not long ago. Before we pounced on it, I took a throwaway (neither styled nor lighted) photo of it and later posted it to Instagram. Whereupon, everyone else seemed to want to pounce on it.

It reminded me that to most of us, even those of us who are avid meat eaters, there’s nothing more enticing than a plate of well-cooked Chinese greens.  I normally just stir-fry greens with a garlic and Happy Wife* sauce. Stop at that point and you’ve got a very tasty dish. But when I’m feeling more-ish, or when my other dishes are mild-flavored, I’ll gild the bok choy with this tangy umami sauce.

About that Happy Wife sauce: Do not confuse it with Angry Lady sauce, which is what some people call the Laoganma brand of chili oils. (See photo on bottle.) Happy Wife really has made me a happy wife, though I had no idea until recently that that is what it is called, since the brandname it uses in English is Totole.

Totole chicken powder
This chicken-less Chinese chicken powder is a flavor enhancer like no other—and a secret weapon of American chefs

So I’m going to digress a bit here and tell you how I discovered Happy Wife. You can skip down to the recipe if you are not interested in a game-changing new ingredient. For some reason, I never discovered it in China, even though it is China’s No. 1 brand of chicken powder. For years I’ve known that the few chefs in China who don’t use MSG in their food often use chicken powder. I never understood this, because chicken bouillon powder as I know it (Knorr and the like) is pretty boring and not nearly as magical a flavor enhancer as MSG.

(And we all know by now that MSG is not actually bad for you and that there’s no such thing as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, right? The story of how this misinformation came to be spread just keeps getting weirder. If you are interested in the latest twists and turns listen to this recent episode of This American Life. It’s fascinating!)

A year or so ago I was reading a profile on Taste about a sandwich shop in New Orleans, Turkey and the Wolf, that Bon Appetit named the best restaurant in the country in late 2017. In talking about their renowned fried chicken pot pie, the chef revealed that Totole chicken powder (which he learned about from a Vietnamese friend) is the secret ingredient that makes people go wild over this dish!

So that’s when I hunted it down in my local Asian market, where it had been on the shelves all along and is called Granulated Chicken Flavor Soup Base Mix. And, oh my gosh, these little granules of chicken-less “chicken” are outrageously flavorful even straight from the can. I have no idea what process could create this, but the ingredients are “salt, rice, sugar, MSG (less than 15%), flavorings, disodium 5 ribonucleotide, spices, yeast extract, acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein seasoning (degreased soybean), and sesame oil.” The parentheses are theirs, though I would add that disodium 5, also known as E635, is used to magnify the power of MSG.

So now I add a bit of Totole to lots of dishes that could use an oomph and mix it with water anytime a stir-fry calls for a splash of chicken broth. It wasn’t until recently that I asked my daughter, Fongchong, about its Chinese name and she informed me that the Chinese brandname actually translates as Tai Tai Le, or Happy Wife.

oyster sauce, soy sauce and black vinegar
Umami triple threat: oyster sauce, soy sauce and black vinegar

As for the other ingredients in this dish, they are more familiar: Chinese light soy sauce, Zhenjiang black vinegar and oyster sauce. This is the place to pull out the long-aged, 6-year Zhenjiang if you have it. The Mala Market carries these sauces as well as Megachef oyster sauce, which is indeed popular with some mega chefs. It is gluten- and MSG-free and made from smoked oysters. It’s tasty and subtle, as opposed to  the more forceful and fishy premium oyster sauce from Lee Kum Kee, the Chinese company that invented oyster sauce.

baby bok choy
Simply cut in half vertically; there’s no need to trim the ends on these youngest of bok choy

For the greens, start not with bok choy, which, although you can usually find it in your local Kroger, is a giant with thick and often pock-marked stalks. Don’t start even with the baby bok choy that’s often called Shanghai bok choy in Asian markets, as it is more like teen bok choy. It is great for many uses, but not for this stir-fry. Instead try to find the youngest, smallest bok choy you can find, the whole thing not more than a couple inches in diameter. I’m not sure if this is just newborn Shanghai bok choy or some kind of dwarf variety, but the bulbous ends are so tender that you can merely cut them in half vertically for your stir-fry. The are done in a flash, and then you can gaze at their adorable cuteness on the plate. These itty bitty baby bok choy are also the ideal size for eating with chopsticks.

Vegetables of China card deck
The Cleaver Quarterly’s Vegetables of China card deck can help anyone navigate Chinese produce aisles

Another tip I have for you is to let a deck of vegetable cards from The Clever Quarterly be your guide to other Chinese greens that might be good in this recipe. For example, gailan, or Chinese broccoli, is usually served with oyster sauce in Cantonese restaurants, and yuchoy (our family fave) is another great choice. One of the best things about this deck of cards is that each one tells you all the aliases a Chinese vegetable goes by. For example, yuchoy is also called choy sum, youcai and Chinese oil vegetable. (It’s the source of Sichuan’s popular cooking oil, rapeseed oil). The cards also tell you the nutritional content of the veg, give ideas for preparing it, and provide other tidbits of interest or oddness. Take them to a Chinese market with you, and you’ll know exactly what to put in your cart and exactly what to do with it when you get it home. (Plus you’ll be supporting an exceptional organization devoted to Chinese food writing.)

bok choy with vinegar oyster sauce
Itty bitty baby bok choy gets a quick stir-fry and even quicker steam before it’s crowned with tangy umami sauce

Itty Bitty Baby Bok Choy in Vinegar Oyster Sauce

By: Taylor Holliday | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking

Ingredients 

  • pounds smallest baby bok choy
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, sliced
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon Totole chicken-less chicken powder mixed with 4 tablespoons water or 4 tablespoons chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • tablespoons Zhenjiang vinegar (preferably 6-year)
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce (preferably Zhongba)

Instructions 

  • Cut baby bok choy in half vertically, from top to bottom. Rinse and dry well (a salad spinner is good for this).
  • Heat wok over a high flame and add 2 tablespoons oil. When the oil is hot, lower flame and add garlic slices. Stir-fry briefly to soften, but do not brown.
  • Add bok choy, increase flame, and stir-fry for about 2 minutes. Add the salt and chicken broth and cover pan. Steam for about 1 minute and check doneness. When cooked through but still crisp, plate bok choy.
  • Mix oyster sauce, vinegar and soy sauce in a bowl or measuring cup and heat in the microwave for 20 seconds (or heat until warm in a small saucepan). Drizzle sauce over the bok choy and serve.

Tried this recipe?

 

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for heritage Sichuan ingredients and Chinese pantry essentials.

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15 Comments

  1. This definitely goes on my must-try list. I don’t have a working microwave oven. The goal here is to heat the sauce to the boiling point but not really cook it. Is that correct?

    1. Hi Paul,
      Feel free to heat on stovetop or not at all. I don’t bring it to a boil, just warm it up enough that it doesn’t cool the greens.

  2. Great dish. Here in North America ‘rapeseed’ oil is known as Canola oil. Canada produces huge amounts of it. Years ago, because of the somewhat unsavory connotation of rapeseed, the name was changed (from the words Canadian oil) to Canola.

    1. Thanks for bringing this up! In Sichuan, greens (and everything else) would indeed be stir-fried in tasty rapeseed oil (cai zi you), and here we sub with canola. I’ve done a lot of reading on this, and from what I understand, at one point there was a worry about oil from rapeseed being somewhat toxic, so it was genetically modified in Canada to get rid of the toxic elements. That’s why all canola oil is GMO, and canola is indeed a different plant from rapeseed. Over the years, that toxicity has been bred out in some other way in China (this is the part I’m fuzzy on), and also in England and Sweden, which produce organic rapeseed oil. I’ve thought of importing some rapeseed oil from Sichuan for our shop, but I’m just not sure that I could ever sell it with that name and its past connotations. (However I am bringing in some premium Sichuan pepper oil that’s made with first-grade rapeseed oil and is delicious!)

    1. That’s true, but when I’m in China I’m not usually shopping for chicken powder, as I never had much interest in it. It never occurred to me that there was that much difference among brands. As I said, I think Tai Tai Le is much better than the others now that I’ve tried it. (In America, one side of the can is in English and the other side in Chinese.)

  3. Re: rapeseed vs canola oil. As discussed they come from the same plant. Canola oil in the west has been bred to lower the percentage of erucic acid. Erucic acid is problematic for animals that eat a lot of it (causes reversible changes in heart and liver) but probably has little to no health effects on humans even in amounts that are well beyond what people get in the diet. It’s present in mustard oil and canola oil. The amount in Canola in the west is below 2% but can be as high as 40% in non-Western varieties. This is going largely from memory but if curious these points can be a starting place for your own reading.

    1. Thank you for this valuable information. The Sichuan pepper oil I am about to import is made from cold-pressed, first quality rapeseed oil. I may bring in the rapeseed oil itself at some point as I learn more about it. I know that European producers claim that it is better for you than almost all other oils, with the right levels of the right kinds of fats….

  4. I’ve been preparing a variation on this recipe: On a weekend, I quick-cure a slab of fresh pork belly overnight and then roast it at low temperature until it’s barely cooked through. Then it goes straight to the back of the fridge. Weeknight stir-fries start with thin shavings off that belly, which provide the fat for the veggies to come. It has supplied one of my most satisfying parenting moment to date: when my four year old announced to a stranger that bok choy was his favorite food. I nearly melted in delight.