Itty Bitty Baby Bok Choy in Vinegar-Oyster Sauce
Published Mar 02, 2019, Updated Jun 01, 2023
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Itty Bitty Baby Bok Choy in Vinegar Oyster Sauce
- 1½ 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
- 1½ tablespoons Zhenjiang vinegar (preferably 6-year)
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce (preferably Zhongba)
- 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?