(Brassica rapa var pekinensis— Family Cruciferae [Brassicaceae])
Chinese Cabbage, Chinese leaves, Napa cabbage, Peking/Tientsin cabbage, celery cabbage, po tsai, bai cai/chih-li (Mandarin), wong nga baak (Cantonese), hakusai (Japanese)
Although Chinese cabbage belongs to the same genus as the common European cabbage, it has a bewildering number of names.
This confusion is compounded by Chinese names for each species or variety which is creeping into the English language and which does not necessarily match its Chinese counterpart.
Another problem is the lack of agreement among botanists. Much is to be said for the advice offered by one expert author who says to forget the names and shop by pointing.
One thing that is helpful to know is that the Chinese word for vegetable is cai. In Cantonese, it is choy/choi. There is no single word for ‘cabbage’, but their names reflect their appearance. Thus bai cai (pak choi in Cantonese) means ‘white vegetable’, and da bai cai is ‘big white vegetable’ or cabbage.
Not only are the names confusing for this very popular variety, but so are the shapes. There are three main varieties of Chinese cabbage.
The first is known as napa,
which is tight-headed, barrel shaped, and a pale yellow to a pale green. Napa is about a foot long and six inches thick.
The second is also a loose-headed variety
that looks more like a pale green head of romaine lettuce than a cabbage.
The third variety is Peking or Tientsin cabbage,
which is longer and more narrow than napa and looks somewhat like a cos lettuce.
All Chinese cabbages have a milder, more delicate taste than green, red, or Savoy cabbages.
Sometimes, there appear to be tiny black spots on the leaves of Chinese cabbages. These are not signs of deterioration but occur naturally and are harmless.
Chinese cabbage is a biennial grown as an annual for its edible leaves, stems, and flowering shoots. It is a cross between the turnip and bok choi (see below); but unlike bok choi, it forms a large, loose head and differs from the other heading cabbages in that it is easier to digest. It also lacks a stalk as the leaves close by themselves.
The leaves are yellowish to dark green on the outside with broad white ribs. The inner leaves are yellow to golden yellow.
They may be one of three shapes: oval, very oval, or long and cylindrical. Depending on the shape, the heads can weigh almost five pounds.
Chinese cooks often line the bottom of bamboo steamers with cabbage leaves to stop foods from sticking to the steamer and by adding a little bread to a steamer full of cabbage, any sulphurous odours will be soaked up by the bread.
Chinese cabbage was first recorded about the 5th century CE and has never been found in the wild. It is thought to have been a spontaneous cultivated cross between pak choi and the turnip.
Taken to the East Indies and Malaysia by Chinese traders and settlers in the 1400s, Chinese cabbage was found in the Chinese colony in Malacca. By 1751, European missionaries had sent seeds back home, but the vegetable was considered little more than a curiosity.
Another attempt at introduction was made by a French seedsman in 1845, but the supply became exhausted and the seed was lost. In 1970, the first large-scale commercial crop was produced by the Israelis and distributed in Europe.
About the same time, it was marketed in the US as the Napa Cabbage, named after the valley in California, where it was grown and now moderately popular in North America.
The Japanese have been successful in breeding new hybrid varieties, producing a cabbage that grows faster and with a better flavour and a more uniform size. This “Japanese cabbage” is still marketed as Chinese cabbage and is ideal in sweet and savory dishes either raw or cooked. The leaves are also good wrappers for stuffed cabbage dishes, but it is unsuitable in dishes requiring a long cooking time.
Warning: To minimize the risk of the listeria bacteria, you should never store Chinese cabbage in plastic bags.
Chinese cabbages are sometimes grown as a sacrificial crop so that slugs, flea beetles, and aphids are attracted to them rather than other crops.
In the US, they are used among maize to attract corn worms. Some varieties include the following:
is cylindrical, with a firm crisp head. It takes about sixty-five days to mature and is cold tolerant.
is a barrel type with a compact head.
is similar to Kasumi, but has dark green leaves with dense heads (no pun intended).
has lax pale green heads and creamy hearts, is delicious, and matures early.
Santo Serrated Leaved is a loose-headed variety with attractive serrated leaves and is cold resistant.
has tender light green leaves, a dense core, and a tendency to spread.
Tip Top is a variety which can be planted early and harvested seventy days later. It is vigorous and has good sized heads.
Bok choy, bok choi, pak choi, pak choy, spoon cabbage, Chinese celery/chard cabbage, Chinese white cabbage, mustard cabbage, Canton, Shanghai, Taiwan, choy sum types, tatsoi (Brassica rapa ssp chinensi – Ffamily Cruciferae [Brassicaceae])
Bok choy is a delicate leaf-stalk vegetable that is cultivated mainly in China, Korea, Japan, and the US.
The plants grow to about sixteen to twenty inches tall and are ready for harvest just two months after planting.
Bok choi does not form a closed head, and resembles Swiss Chard in appearance and taste. It is a white-stalked cabbage with dark green leaves; and, because it does not travel well, it is seldom exported by the Asian countries, where it is widely grown. It is now cultivated on an increasing scale in the West.
Its nutritional value is twice that of white cabbage, with the leaf-ribs being the highest in nutrients. It is delicious eaten raw, steamed, or stir-fried; but is unsuitable for dishes requiring a long cooking time.
Shanghai bok choi
is a smaller variety. The light green leaf stalks and leaves are typical to this variety, which is grown only in China, and even then, on a very small scale. It has a mellow cabbage flavour and cooks quickly.
There are three main types of bok choy: regular, baby, and Shanghai.
Regular is up to twenty inches long, while baby is no more than six. Shanghai is in the middle about twelve inches long and looks like the other two, except that it is all green, with no white veins.
All types of bok choy can have flowers,
but avoid any profusion of them as this indicates over maturity. The flowers are edible.
Naturally, there is always one that does not fit into any of these categories. Taiwan bok choy
looks like baby Chinese cabbage; but, being a combination of all three types, is slightly different. Taiwan (Fengshan) bok choy looks like a tiny, cylindrical, Chinese cabbage composed of just a few lettuce-like chartreuse leaves. It is very juicy, with a mild flavour that barely hints at cabbage. The pliable leaves turn brilliant when cooked; and, although they are thin, they hold their shape well without tearing, which makes perfect wrappers.
Bok choy seedlings or shoots (bok choy miu) are the smallest market form of the plant, with just a few leaflets to a cluster. It is good raw or cooked, and is very juicy.
All Chinese greens are suitable for salads or in cooking, especially stir fries. All are high in beta carotene and Vitamin C and an excellent source of folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium. The darker the leaf, the more beta carotene it contains.
The following are some of the various forms of bok choy.
Canton or dwarf bok choy
is short and squat; and the stalks are very plump and pearly white, very juicy but bland. The dark green leaves look like Swiss chard, but taste more like cabbage. If cooked just right, it is light and refreshing; but, if overdone, it becomes a dull mush. Baby bok choy is the acronym given to both the dwarf type and small immature plants of larger varieties. Mature bok choy is usually between ten and twenty inches long, and the one most common in western supermarkets. It may resemble Swiss chard but tastes nothing like it, having a mild juicy sweetness that is closer to a romaine.
is an impossible term to narrow down, but three distinct meanings seem common:
1) choy sum is a small branching white-stemmed yellow-flowered plant similar to, but not the same as, bok choy. It is called choy sum at any stage of growth, whether flowering or not.
2) choy sum means vegetable heart and refers to the tender central flowering stalk and small leaves of any plant in the choy family.
3) choy sum is neither of the first two, but the same plant as yau choy, which goes by the name choy sum in southern China, particularly Hong Kong. Whatever part of any similar plant that is eaten, it is always enjoyed.
Yau choy sum is one that fits where it is placed – in various categories. It may belong to the Chinensis group, or the Oleifera (edible oilseed rape), or to the Utilis group, depending on the whim of the moment. When mature, it is ten to twelve inches long, with yellow buds and kelly green stems that are dense and fleshy. Similar to Chinese broccoli, it is more slender and leafy. When cooked, the stems are a bright deep green, tender, and sweet as well as meaty. The leaves develop a more assertive flavour than other bok choy, but not bitter. Yau choy is one of the vegetables included in the “choy sum” confusion and called many things, depending on which part of China you find it.
Chinese flowering cabbage, flowering white cabbage, mock pak choi, oil vegetable, napa, celery cabbage, Chinese leaves
cai xin (Mandarin), choi sam/choy sum (Cantonese), hakusai (Japanese) (Brassica rapa ssp chinensis var. parachinensis – Family Cruciferae [Brassicaceae])
Chinese cabbage is the name used for both this type and bok choy. Choy sum is also known as flowering bok choy and flowering white cabbage. For all the confusing names, Chinese cabbage really is Chinese, and it really is a cabbage.
It originated in China with the earliest date, having been discovered of around the 5th century CE. No wild cabbage has ever been found. It is probably a cross which occurred naturally in cultivation, likely between the southern pak choy and the norther turnip.
Contemporary varieties are primarily Japanese hybrids, although the vegetable did not reach Japan until the 1860s; and breeding did not begin until the 1920s. Choy sum has green oval leaves and small yellow flowers that blossom between the broad oval leaves.
Either the shoot tips with the edible flowers are harvested or the entire plant is picked. Both are prepared in a similar fashion to broccoli.
Chinese flat-headed cabbage, Chinese rosette cabbage, wu ta cai (Mandarin), taai gwoo choi (Cantonese), tatsoi/tasai (Japanese) (Brassica rapa ssp chinensis var rosularis – Family Cruciferae [Brassicaceae])
This is a pretty plant with an unsightly nickname of “flat cabbage”. It is a variety which grows only a couple of inches high, but whose rosettes grow in the shape of a plate that can spread over an area up to a foot or more in diameter.
It is able to withstand frost so flourishes in the region of Shanghai. The leaves are rounded, and the leaf stalks are green and celery-like.
Like other bok choys, it is harvested in many sizes. It is tougher and stronger tasting than other bok choy, but cooking mellows this.
The young plants with small leaves surrounding the central rosette are best and is considered to have an exceptionally good flavour.