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14 Interesting Facts About Chinese Cabbage

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Chinese cabbage, also known as napa cabbage, is a versatile vegetable that is common in Asian cuisine. From its health benefits to its history, this leafy green has some fascinating stories to tell. Keep reading for 14 interesting facts you may not know about Chinese cabbage!

1. There Are Two Main Varieties

There are two major varieties of Chinese cabbage grown today:

  • Napa cabbage (Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis) – This is the most common variety, with crinkly green leaves forming an elongated, bulbous head. It has a mild, sweet flavor.
  • Bok choy (Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis) – Bok choy has smooth, thick white stems and dark green leaves. Its flavor is more akin to mustard greens or spinach.

So when you’re shopping for Chinese cabbage, know that “napa” and “bok choy” are not the same!

2. It’s a Cool Weather Crop

White rust of Chinese cabbage
White rust of Chinese cabbage

While napa cabbage can be grown year-round in some climates, it thrives best as a cool weather crop. Most cultivation takes place in spring and fall when temperatures are milder. Warm weather causes the plants to bolt and the leaves to become bitter.

In China’s Yangtze River Valley, farmers traditionally sow seeds for napa cabbage in September and transplant seedlings to fields in October. This allows the plants to mature during the cool winter months ahead of the Chinese New Year.

3. They Can Grow HUGE

Given the right conditions, Chinese cabbages have the potential to grow massive! The current Guinness World Record for the heaviest napa cabbage belongs to a 138-pound (62.6 kg) whopper grown in Alaska in 2012.

Meanwhile, a farmer in China holds the record for the largest napa cabbage at roughly 8 feet, 4 inches (254 cm) tall and 5 feet, 7 inches (170 cm) across. That’s a whole lot of cabbage rolls!

4. It Has Ancient Roots as a Food Crop

Archaeological evidence traces napa cabbage cultivation in China back over 6,000 years ago. In Korea, similar records date its farming over 2,000 years ago.

Centuries later, Chinese cabbage remains an important staple vegetable across Eastern Asia and is now common globally. The major producing countries today include China, South Korea, Japan, and North Korea.

5. Kimchi Is a Signature Dish

Kimchi, the national dish of Korea, is a spicy, sour fermented cabbage. And yes, you guessed it – napa cabbage is the main ingredient!

To make traditional baechu kimchi, napa cabbage leaves are salted, rinsed, then mixed with a fiery paste of chili powder, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and other seasonings. The mixture is then left to ferment and develop that lip-smacking tangy flavor kimchi is so well known for.

6. There Are Mini Versions Too

green vegetables

If huge cabbages don’t fit your kitchen, you’re in luck! Baby napa cabbage and baby bok choy offer all the flavor and versatility of their bigger siblings in a more compact size.

Look for these bite-size bundles with leaves roughly 4-6 inches tall. They work perfectly for stir-fries, soups, and other quick-cooking dishes.

7. It Goes by Many Names

Given its long history and broad native growing area across Eastern Asia, Chinese cabbage is known by many monikers. Some common regional names for napa cabbage include:

  • Hakusai – Japanese
  • Peking cabbage – American English
  • Wong bok – Cantonese
  • Xiǎobáicài – Mandarin Chinese

Meanwhile, bok choy goes by names like yóuxiāngcài (Mandarin), pak kay (Cantonese), and joi choi (Hokkien dialect).

8. There Are Unique Regional Cultivars

Beyond the two main types, there are also hundreds of unique Chinese cabbage cultivars that have been developed locally for generations. Each is specially adapted to perform well in that area’s soil and climate.

Some examples you may encounter include:

  • Chihili – An early maturing napa cabbage from northern China.
  • Michihili – A large, cold-tolerant Long Island specialty.
  • Rosette bok choy – A compact Shirley Romo developed in California.
  • Canton dwarf – A miniature bok choy for containers or small gardens.

9. It Boasts Impressive Nutrition

Low in calories yet loaded with vitamins and minerals, Chinese cabbage deserves some nutrition kudos!

One cup of raw shredded napa cabbage contains[*]:

  • 13 calories
  • 2 grams protein
  • 3 grams carbohydrate
  • 2 grams fiber
  • High amounts of vitamin C and vitamin K
  • Good source of vitamin B6, folate, calcium, potassium

It delivers this stellar nutritional value with virtually no fat or cholesterol too.

10. The Leaves Can Be Used as Natural Food Dyes

The red-purple pigments that give some Chinese cabbage leaves their rich color are called anthocyanins. These same water-soluble plant compounds make blueberries blue and raspberries rosy.

Beyond visual appeal, anthocyanins also act as antioxidants in the body. But cooks sometimes use the vibrant leaves for another purpose – as edible dyes!

Add some chopped red cabbage or leaves to milk-based batters like pancakes, dumplings, or ice cream. Anthocyanins will infuse these dishes with hints of purple, pink, or blue for a fun, natural food dye effect.

11. It Has Medicinal History

In traditional Chinese medicine, napa cabbage leaves are considered cooling with sweet, bitter flavors. Practitioners prescribe them to address conditions characterized by inflammation or “internal heat” in the body.

Specifically, raw napa cabbage juice is used as a natural remedy for headaches, swollen eyes, lung infections, skin rashes, and more. It can also help expel intestinal parasites when consumed in larger quantities.

12. Cabbage Loopers Love It

Unfortunately for gardeners, some insect critters love munching Chinese cabbage as much as we do! The pesky cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni) is one moth larvae pest that can do major damage.

These “inchworms” blend right into leaves with their green camouflage skin. Left uncontrolled, whole heads can be devoured disappointingly fast by these stealthy eaters. Covering plants with fine mesh is one solution to keeping cabbage loopers at bay.

13. It Has Special New Year Symbolism

In Chinese culture, cabbage dishes take center stage on the dinner table during the Lunar New Year. This vegetable is treasured for symbolic meanings like prosperity, fortune, vigour and vitality – all excellent qualities to usher in a fresh start!

Common lucky charm menu items include steamboats filled with raw vegetables and uncut long noodles representing longevity. Stir-fries with napa cabbage, mushrooms for prosperity and oysters for good business are also auspiciously eaten at this time.

14. There’s a Cabbage Throwing Festival

Germany has a quirky tradition known as Krautfest or “cabbage festival” dating back to 1841. It’s held annually in the town of Fürth on Shrove Tuesday celebrating the cabbage harvest season.

Today’s much-anticipated event includes cabbage tasting stands, special cabbage menu items at local restaurants and the raucous “cabbage stampede”. For this activity, crowds gather to storm across town bridging streets all while gleefully throwing red and white cabbages!

Now that you’re stuffed with fascinating Chinese cabbage facts, it’s time to give this healthy, versatile veggie a try if you haven’t already. Got any favourite napa cabbage recipes or unusual bok choy dishes? Share in the comments below!

Key Takeaways

  • Chinese cabbage comes in two main varieties: napa cabbage (bulky heads) and bok choy (smooth stems with leafy tops).
  • Cool-weather brings out the best flavor and growth. Heat causes bolting and bitterness.
  • Some record-breakingly huge cabbages have been grown weighing over 130 lbs!
  • Cultivated in China for over 6,000 years, it remains an important crop in Eastern Asia.
  • Kimchi, the national dish of Korea, relies on napa cabbage as its base.
  • Miniature baby napa and baby bok choy offer quick-cooking flavors.
  • Many different regional names are used for Chinese cabbage varieties.
  • There are hundreds of specially adapted local cultivars.
  • Excellent source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants for low calories.
  • Red leaves can be used to naturally dye foods pink or purple.
  • Traditionally consumed in Chinese medicine and for symbolic luck during New Year celebrations.
  • Be on guard for hungry cabbage loopers who enjoy munching leaves!

Frequently Asked Questions

What does Chinese cabbage taste like?

Chinese cabbage has a very mild, delicate flavor. Napa cabbage is lightly sweet and watery, with tender green leaves. Bok choy tastes more like a cross between cabbage and spinach, with crisp, juicy stems.

Can you eat Chinese cabbage raw?

Absolutely! Both main varieties can be eaten raw in salads, wraps or slaws. Slice thinly or shred for the most tender, crispy texture. To mellow any bitterness, salt the shredded veg and let it sweat before rinsing and patting dry.

Is Chinese cabbage good for keto diet?

With its low natural carb content and high volume of nutrients per calorie, Chinese cabbage is keto-approved. Use it as veggie “noodles” or swap in for higher-carb wraps. Just watch heavy sauces that may contain hidden sugars or excess oil.

Can you substitute bok choy for napa cabbage?

In most cooked dishes, bok choy can stand in for napa cabbage or ordinary green cabbage. Keep in mind the flavor and texture contrasts, adjusting seasonings accordingly. For raw applications, the tender leaves of baby bok choy work best.

What is the difference between regular cabbage and napa cabbage?

While all cabbage family members, napa varieties form a much more elongated, football-shaped head compared to the round shape of green/red cabbages. Napa leaves also lack the same rigidness and pronounced veining. Flavor-wise napa is sweeter, lighter and less sulfurous tasting overall.

How do you store Chinese cabbage?

Rinsed, dry leaves kept in an airtight bag in the refrigerator crisper will store fresh for 1-2 weeks. For partial heads, trim the base and stand (cut-side down) in a container with water, covering loosely with a plastic bag. This allows for an extra week of crispy life!


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