pak-choi cabbage

Chinese cabbage

Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa subspecies, see below) also known as snow cabbage, is a Chinese leaf vegetable commonly used in Chinese cuisine. The vegetable is related to the Western cabbage and of the same species as the common turnip. There are many variations on its name, spelling, and scientific classification.


Chinese cabbage has been cultivated for over six thousand years in China. Brassica rapa seeds have been found in jars in the excavated New Stone Age settlement of Banpo. They were a common part of the diet in southern China by the 5th century.

The Ming Dynasty pharmacologist Li Shizhen studied the Chinese cabbage for its medicinal qualities. Before this time the Chinese cabbage was largely confined to the Yangtze River Delta region. The Chinese cabbage as it is known today is very similar to a variant bred in Zhejiang around the 14th century. During the following centuries, it became popular in northern China and the northern harvest soon exceeded the southern one. Northern cabbages were exported along the Grand Canal to Zhejiang and as far south as Guangdong.

They were introduced to Korea, where it became the staple vegetable for making kimchi. In the early 20th century, it was taken to Japan by returning soldiers who had fought in China during the Russo-Japanese War. At present, the Chinese cabbage is quite commonly found in markets throughout the world.


There are two distinctly different groups of Brassica rapa used as leaf vegetables in China, and a wide range of varieties within these two groups. The binomial name B. campestris is also used.


This group is the more common of the two, especially outside Asia; names such as da baicai (lit. "large white vegetable"); Baguio pechay or pechay wombok (Tagalog); Chinese white cabbage; baechu (Korean), wongbok, nappa, or napa cabbage; and hakusai (白菜) usually refer to members of this group. Pekinensis cabbages have broad green leaves with white petioles, tightly wrapped in a cylindrical formation and usually, but not necessarily, forming a compact head. As the group name indicates, this is particularly popular in northern China around Beijing (Peking).


This group was originally classified as its own species under the name B. chinensis by Linnaeus. When used in English, the name bok choy (also spelled pak choi) typically refers to Chinensis. Smaller in size, the Mandarin term xiao baicai ("small white vegetable") as well as the descriptive English names Chinese chard, Chinese mustard, celery mustard, and spoon cabbage are also employed. Chinensis varieties do not form heads; instead, they have smooth, dark green leaf blades forming a cluster reminiscent of mustard or celery. Chinensis varieties are popular in southern China and Southeast Asia. Being winter-hardy, they are increasingly grown in Northern Europe.

Commercial variants of Chinensis include:

  • Bok Choy (白菜); succulent, white stems with dark green leaves and Baby Bok Choy; succulent, pale green stems with leaves the same color; both quite common in US West Coast oriental markets.
  • Choy Sum (Hokkien chai sim): also called yu cai this brassica refers to a small, delicate version of pak choi. In appearance it is more similar to rapini or broccoli rabe, than the typical pak choi. In English, it can also be called "Flowering Chinese Cabbbage" due to the yellow flowers that comes with this particular vegetable. "Choy sum" is sometimes used to describe the stem of any Chinese cabbage or the heart of Shanghai pak choi.
  • Shanghai Pak Choi (Japanese: 青梗菜, chingensai) refers to dark green varieties where the varioles are also green. It is probably the most common vegetable in Shanghai, where it is simply called qingcai (青菜; literally "blue/green vegetable") or qingjiangcai (青江菜; literally "blue/green river vegetable").


In Mandarin Chinese bai cai (白菜, or "white vegetable") refers to both groups of B. rapa. However, the English word bok choy and its variations bok choi and pak choi are derived from the Cantonese cognate, which instead denotes one specific variety of cabbage, namely those with white stems and dark green leaves. The other varieties all have different names which entered the English language as you choy, choy sum, napa (from 黃芽白, Cantonese name for 天津白菜 or 肇菜) and baby bok choy, etc. Hence the English word bok choy (and its Cantonese source) is not equivalent to the Mandarin word bai cai, though the Chinese characters are the same.

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