Chinese Cabbage

(大白菜 mandarin: da-bye-tsai, or Tyen-jin-bye-tsai; Cantonese: die-bok choy)

Calling something Chinese cabbage is about as meaningless as a cook calling something lettuce, which is to say that there are at least a dozen varieties of common Chinese cabbage and each of them tastes, looks, and cooks differently. It is not, alas, merely a matter of a sloppy or an unspecific English name. The name given to the very same cabbage will change from one area of China to the next, which means that the only way to separate one cabbage from its cousin is to describe what it looks like.
The type of Chinese cabbage that I use 90 percent of the time is an oblong head 6–10 inches long, of evenly broad leaves wrapped tightly around one another. The broad rib is surrounded by a skirt of thin, crinkly leaf, which is sometimes tinged with a bit of green. The taste is light, fresh, and delicate, and not at all cabbagy. The perfume is similarly mild, clean, and slightly sweet. I use the outer leaves for general stir-frying, and save the inner leaves and hearts for pickles or more delicate dishes.

You will find this cabbage by its look, not the name given to it, which changes from store to store and from one Chinese speaker to the next. I have seen it, as well as several other varieties, marketed as white cabbage, Napa cabbage, Chinese cabbage, and bok choy, the latter being a general designation which will at least get you to the cabbage shelf.

A perfect head of what I am calling Chinese cabbage in spite of my tirade should feel firm when you press it between your hands, and should be very white in color, not green. Dots of black on the ribs do not affect the taste. My grocers say it is a mark of heavy rainfall, but I haven’t been able to verify this intriguing bit of information.

If the head is perfect to begin with, it will keep for up to a month in the refrigerator, sealed airtight in plastic wrap. Discard the outer leaves as they soften and brown, then reseal the head with fresh wrap.

Another variety of Chinese cabbage that I love to use is what I call Miniature Green Chinese Cabbage (青梗菜 mandarin: ching-gong-tsai; Cantonese: ching-gong-choy). A common trade name is baby bok choy.

Very different in appearance from the white Chinese cabbage above, it is a loose, bulbous cluster of light green stems topped by oval, grass-colored leaves, the whole plant measuring anywhere from 3–3 ½ inches for the real babies to about 6 inches for the more mature plant. The stalks should be perky and smooth, and the leaves should be lively and unblemished. Like most fresh vegetables in a Chinese market, it will be heaped in a more or less neat stack alongside the other cabbages. It has almost no smell, just a very clean and slightly grassy aroma, and the taste is wonderfully refreshing, with just a touch of acridness to give it character.
If the head is perfect when you buy it, it will keep for a week or more in the refrigerator, sealed in a plastic bag with the bag puffed balloon-like around it to keep the leaves from squashing and releasing the juices that hasten spoilage.
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