The name Chinese cabbage can lead you to several very different vegetables.
There are dozens of varieties of “Chinese cabbage” each with unique tastes and culinary attributes.
All of the so-called Chinese cabbages belong to the genus Brassica which is a diverse group of vegetables that include cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, and turnips.
The Brassica variety chinensis is known as bok choy or pak choi. Bok choy can be long-stemmed, thick-stemmed, short, fat, flowering, green- or white-stalked. Its leaves are upright—not rounded–on stalks similar to Swiss chard.
Bok choy or pak choi, the Cantonese variation of the name, is also called Chinese cabbage, baak choi, pak tsoi, petsay, Chinese white cabbage, Chinese mustard cabbage, Chinese chard, white celery mustard, and taisai. Cultivars of bok choy include Shanghai choy, choy sum, bok choy sum, and tat soi.
Bok choy can be eaten raw—the leaves are succulent and tasty and the stems are juicy and crunchy. You can cook bok choy in stir-fries and soups. Thinly slice the ribbed stems or cut them into squares and cook them briefly.
The leaves of bok choy are mostly water so it’s best to cook the leaves separate from the stems. The stems will take longer to cook.
The Brassica variety pekinensis is commonly referred to as Chinese leaves, celery cabbage, and in the United States as Napa cabbage. There are three general types of cabbages in the Pekinensis group: the “tall cylindrical,” the “hearted’ or “barrel-shaped,” and the “loose-headed.”
The tall cylindrical type has long, upright leaves that form a tapering head. These varieties are generally referred to as “Michihili,” the name of one popular tall cylindrical variety.
The hearted type has compact, barrel-shaped heads with tightly wrapped leaves and a dense heart. These are commonly referred to as wong bok or Napa cabbage.
The loose- or open-headed type has a lax or floppy demeanor and textured leaves. These are also known as pei tsai.
Names common to these three types include Chinese leaves, celery cabbage, Chinese celery cabbage, Napa, nappa, pe-tsai, wong bok cabbage, wong nga bok, Peking cabbage, Tientsin or Tianjin cabbage, bai cai, chih-li, shantung cabbage, hakusai, chihli cabbage, Michihli, Chinese leaf, and chou de Chine.
Chinese leaves can be eaten raw in salads for their mild flavor and crunchy texture or used in stir-fries, stews, or soups.
When choosing either bok choy or Chinese leaves, look for leaves that are crisp and moist and stalks that are thick, fleshy, and firm. Bok choy leaves should be bright green and the tips of Chinese leaves should be green.
Avoid bok choy or Chinese leaves whose heads are wilted, or limp, or discolored.