When you see the name "Chinese cabbage" in a recipe, it could be referring to one of two varieties: napa cabbage or bok choy. However, most likely the recipe is calling for napa cabbage. While this oblong, white to pale green cabbage is cultivated worldwide, it's the most widely grown vegetable in China, and a popular ingredient in authentic Asian cuisines, from stir-fry and noodle dishes to dumplings, rolls, and salads. It's easy to prepare and offers a mild flavor that gets sweeter with cooking.
What Is Chinese Cabbage?
The scientific name for Chinese cabbage is Brassica rapa. Napa cabbage, the most common variety, is the subspecies pekinensis. The name is most likely derived from the Japanese word nappa—meaning leafy green—rather than a location, which is why it's not capitalized. You may also see it labeled as Chinese white cabbage, Peking cabbage, or celery cabbage.
This oblong, large-headed cabbage has firmly packed, crinkly, pale green, thickly veined leaves and a white stalk (hence the alternative name "celery cabbage"). Because of the vegetable's resistance to cold, the cabbage has become popular throughout the world, especially in the northern regions of the globe. Napa cabbage is easy to prepare and, due to its increased use, is relatively easy to find. Chinese cabbage is a perfect vegetable choice if you're on a budget or feeding a crowd—it's nutritious, inexpensive when compared to a lot of other vegetables, and it's filling. It's also rated by gardeners as a vegetable that's easy to grow.
How to Cook With Chinese Cabbage
Napa cabbage can be eaten raw in salads. It has high water content and takes on a sweet and juicy flavor when cooked, picking up other flavors from the food it's cooked with. Since it softens as well, it's frequently added to stir-fries and soups in the last stages of cooking.
Be sure to thoroughly rinse napa cabbage before preparing it. Allow it to drain in a colander. You will also want to remove the stem, cutting the bottom inch or so from the base of the plant. You can either cut the entire head in half lengthwise or leave it whole before chopping it into strips. Depending on how it's to be used, another option is to pull off individual leaves, as you would green cabbage.
In addition to incorporating it into traditional Chinese recipes, you can also use napa cabbage to line a bamboo steamer. This will help prevent food from sticking to the bottom when cooking.
What Does It Taste Like?
Raw napa cabbage has a thin, crisp texture and a mild taste, and when cooked, it softens and gets sweeter.
Chinese Cabbage Recipes
Where to Buy
Due to its increased popularity, it is getting easier to find napa cabbage in grocery stores, where it's often sold by the pound. If you don't have luck there, it's regularly available in Asian markets. When selecting napa cabbage, look for a head with firm green leaves that are not wilted or look like they have been eaten by bugs. The cabbage should feel heavy as well. You can expect to pay a little more for napa cabbage than you would for the standard head of cabbage, though it's still reasonable. If you're going to be shredding cabbage for a recipe, and you're wondering how much to buy, the rule of thumb is that you can get about 8 cups of shredded cabbage from one medium 2-pound head.
You can grow your own napa cabbage. While it requires minimum tending, it takes about two months before you can harvest it. Plant seeds or seedlings after the final frost in an area that gets four to five hours of sun a day, and give it plenty of water. It might even survive the winter months if you live in USDA Hardiness Zone 4-7.
Store napa cabbage in plastic wrap because you'll rarely find a head that fits in plastic storage bags. It will keep well in the crisper section of the refrigerator for about three days. If you plan on cooking it, you may be able to get away with a longer period of time. The cabbage has gone bad when you notice spots on the leaves. At this stage, it will be bitter and should not be eaten.
Chinese Cabbage vs. Green Cabbage
Green cabbage is the most common and best-known variety of cabbage. It is a tightly wrapped and ball-shaped cabbage, while napa cabbage looks more like leafy lettuce. The shape of the head is not the only difference between green and napa cabbage. The leaves of green cabbage are thicker and almost rubbery. The entire head is a pale green color with virtually none of the white found on napa cabbage. Green cabbage also has a slight pepper-like flavor. Like napa cabbage, it also gets sweeter when cooked.
Bok choy is the other variety most often associated with the name Chinese cabbage (as well as Chinese white cabbage, which adds to the confusion). It is similar in shape to napa cabbage, though from the subspecies chinensis group. The leaves, however, are more distinctly separated from one another right at the base, similar in structure to celery. It is also cold weather hardy and can be eaten raw or used in soups, stir-fries, braises, and stews, taking on the flavors it is cooked with.