I’m always looking for ways to take the humblest of ingredients and transform them into a flavor-packed dish that is truly unforgettable. This desire comes from my own childhood, growing up as the only Asian family in our town of North Platte, Nebraska during the 1970s.
Our family didn’t have much — just a simple home with a flat backyard for a summertime plastic kiddie pool, rose bushes and a modest garden. Dad grew the standard Midwest vegetables, like corn, zucchini and cucumbers. We also mail-ordered special Asian vegetable seeds to grow bok choy, Chinese long green beans and Thai chili peppers.
The nearest Asian market was 4 hours away by car, so we had to make do with the specialty vegetables we grew at home for our Chinese meals. During our monthly family road trips to the Asian market, we would stock up on dried goods, pantry items and frozen goods that we’d haul back in a cooler. Ingredients like jasmine rice, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce and dried shrimp were a luxury, since our neighborhood Hinky Dinky Supermarket only carried just the basic American goods.
Mom was the ultimate in thriftiness and making do with what we had available. Sometimes, that meant taking a plain vegetable, like cabbage, or inexpensive cut of meat and using Asian staples to create a meal that any Chinese immigrant would devour.
I’ve created a recipe for you to take the humble bok choy, the most popular of Chinese cabbages, and San-J Hoisin Sauce with a few other pantry ingredients to create a savory, fire-grilled side dish that your family and friends will love.
We’ll learn the secrets of how to create a homemade Asian style sauce with the 5-S’s, and how to perfectly grill bok choy without burning the leaves.
The 5-S’s of Asian Flavors
After experimenting for the past 15 years in creating all sorts of Asian-style sauces from scratch, I’ve developed what I call the 5-S’s rule, which stands for:
Foods that taste the most delicious, especially in Asian cuisine, have these 5 flavor profiles in every single bite. Think of addictive Vietnamese noodle bowls with grilled pork, or Thai Beef Salad. Both of these dishes have flavors that explode, and activate every single taste bud in your mouth!
Salty: tamari/soy sauce, fish sauce
Savory: tamari/soy sauce, fish sauce
Sour: fresh lime
Spicy: chili pepper
This formula makes creating dishes simple. Ingredients are flexible (and some ingredients fit into two S’s, like tamari and fish sauce. Of course, you can always skip out on the spicy if you are feeding kids, but even a tiny little bit of spicy adds immense flavor. Other “spicy” elements could be grated fresh ginger, finely minced garlic, mustard powder, wasabi, black pepper or chopped fresh chili pepper.
Note: Fresh garlic that's smushed in a garlic press is a “spicy” flavor if used raw or just barely cooked. The more you cook garlic, the less spicy it becomes. Burnt garlic is bitter.
For our recipe, Grilled Baby Bok Choy with Hoisin Honey Glaze, here are the 5-S’s in action. Can you guess what fits in each S?
Tamari: salty, savory. Hoisin: salty, savory, sweet. Honey: sweet. Rice vinegar: sour. Japanese chili pepper powder: spicy.
If you don’t have those ingredients, how about this combination?
Tamari: salty, savory. Hoisin: salty, savory, sweet. Orange: sweet. Lemon juice: sour. Sriracha: spicy.
Or this one?
One more ingredient:
I’m also adding “nutty” to the flavor profile, with just a small amount of Asian roasted sesame oil.
Creating the Hoisin Honey Glaze
Chinese Hoisin Sauce is a sweet-savory sauce that’s used in many stir-fries, noodle dishes, and as a popular dipping sauce. You can find all of the ingredients and specific amounts below once we get into the recipe for the grilled baby bok choy.
For this recipe, we'll use San-J Hoisin Sauce and Tamari Soy Sauce, along with some additional ingredients, to make sure we're following the 5 S's principle and making the most of every flavor profile in the finished dish. We're using Tamari Soy Sauce rather than typical soy sauce because it will add a richer and more complex flavor to the glaze. San-J Tamari Soy Sauce is also made with 100% soy and no wheat, which means this dish will be perfect to share with family members or guests who avoid gluten.
To create the glaze, we’ll take all of our sauce ingredients and simmer for just a few minutes to thicken. The Hoisin Honey sauce is the perfect glaze for our grilled baby bok choy.
There's an easy way to tell that the sauce is ready. Once you've simmered it for the perfect amount of time, the sauce should thicken slightly and coat the back of a spoon.
How to Perfectly Grill Baby Bok Choy
Baby bok choy has a very thick, bulbous stem, and thin leaves. The shape makes it more difficult to grill, because by the time the stems are tender, the leaves have burnt to a black, brittle, crisp.
There’s a very simple secret to how to cook baby bok choy on the grill: tin foil and water.
Follow these steps to grill your baby bok choy to perfection.
1. Cut the Baby Bok Choy
First, let’s start by cutting the vegetable. Cut the baby bok choy in half, lengthwise.
The center of the stem should hold the individual leaves together.
Since my baby bok choy is rather large, I’m cutting again, to quarter.
2. Add the Glaze
Adding the glaze before you grill your baby bok choy will help to infuse the vegetable with flavor.
Brush some of the Hoisin Honey Glaze on the STEMS only. Try to avoid the leaves. Adding the glaze to the leaves will make them cook and burn even faster.
3. Line the Grill With Foil
Place a strip of tin foil down on your grill grates. The tin foil will prevent the flames from touching the delicate leaves, giving you plenty of time to let the stems of your baby bok choy cook evenly.
4. Start Grilling
Place the baby bok choy on the grill, resting the leaves on the tin foil.
Grill, covered, for 3 minutes, rotate the bok choy to grill the other side, brushing more Hoisin Honey Glaze on the stem. As you did before, avoid brushing the glaze onto the leaves.
While you're grilling the stems of the bok choy, spritz a little water onto the leaves.
The water prevents the leaves from drying out too much on the grill.
5. Finish the Grilling Process
The bok choy should cook in about 6-7 minutes. Once the thickest part of the stem is tender, and nicely charred (but not burnt), it's just about done.
Remove the tin foil, brush a bit more Hoisin Honey Glaze on the bok choy (you can brush on the leaves as well) and let the vegetable grill for another minute to lightly char the leaves.
Baby Bok Choy With Hoisin Honey Glaze Recipe
4 tablespoons San-J Hoisin Sauce
2 tablespoons San-J Tamari Soy Sauce
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon Asian chili powder or chili flakes
1 pound baby bok choy
To make the Hoisin Honey Glaze, combine all ingredients (except bok choy) into a small sauce pan. Simmer for 3-4 minutes, until slightly thickened.
Wash and cut the baby bok choy lengthwise, into quarters (smaller baby bok choy can just be halved).
Preheat grill to medium. Place a long piece of tin foil (6″ x 14″) on grill. When grill is hot, brush the Hoisin Honey Glaze onto the stems only of the bok choy. Place the bok choy on the grill, resting the leaves on the tin foil. Grill for 3 minutes, covered. Rotate bok choy, brushing additional glaze, if needed. Spritz a little bit of water on the leaves of the bok choy. Cover grill again, and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Check the stems of the baby bok choy. Are they tender? Rotate and brush again if needed. Spritz the leaves again if they are looking very dry.
When bok choy is cooked through, remove the tin foil. Brush leaves and stems with the glaze and let grill for just another minute, to let the leaves get the perfect amount of flame.
Just prior to serving, sprinkle a little more hot chili powder, if desired.
After you've tried out this recipe for grilled baby bok choy, you might want to try making it again with a few changes to the glaze. Keeping the idea of the 5 S's in mind, you can swap a few of the ingredients to give the dish your own personal spin.
Use San-J Hoisin Sauce and Tamari Sauce as your base and experiment with the other components. You might try using lemon juice instead of the rice vinegar to give your glaze a sour kick. Maybe you prefer to add spice with sriracha rather than chili powder. Feel free to get creative until you find the perfect combination!
More Recipes and the Sauces You Need
For more Asian-inspired recipes, cooking tips and ways to develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle for your family, check out our recipes page. Mindful, flavorful meals are just a few steps away.