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Chinese Cabbage or Choy: Varieties, Gastronomical Uses and Nutrition

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These days we can see more varieties of Chinese cabbage in our local supermarkets, so it may be useful to become familiar with them. From bok choy to yu choy sum, these vegetables are really the Chinese equivalents of our broccoli and spinach.

The term Chinese cabbage refers to the more than 35 varieties of cabbage from the Cruciferae botanical family. More and more of these varieties can be seen in supermarkets and Chinese vegetable markets in the west, although the majority do not leave east Asian markets. The Chinese people have been consuming these cruciferous vegetables for thousands of years and cultivating many of these cabbage varieties since the fifth century.

Until relatively recently we in the west have had to abide by our more coarse and stronger tasting, common cabbage. Chinese cabbage,(botanical name Brassica rapa) which has a more delicate flavor and texture, wasn’t introduced to Europe until the 18th century, and was later brought to the United States by Chinese gold prospectors.

Celery Cabbage: Also called napa cabbage, petsai, Peking cabbage or wong bok. Celery cabbage, often confused with bok choy, looks like romaine lettuce. It has light green leaves and is crisp with a flavor that is more delicate than Chinese flowering cabbages like choi sum. Celery cabbage comes in two varieties. Napa, which is the largest and most common and chichi or michihli, a more slender variety. Image credit

Bok Choy: Also know as pak choi, this cabbage is not only cultivated in china but also across Southeast Asia and in particular Thailand. This vegetable looks more like celery or Swiss chard than cabbage. It has dark green leaves with thick white stalks and has a slightly peppery flavor. In South East Asian cooking bok choy is favored because it is quick to prepare, usually stir fried, or it can be eaten raw. The stalks should be cooked first, as they take a little longer, then the leaves added to the stir fry. In Korea, bok choy is preserved and used for the condiment kim chi. In China it is incorporated in the dish Chinese seaweed, which is in fact deep fried, sliced bok choy. Other varieties of bok choy are baby bok choy, which is about half the size of bok choy and Shanghai bok choy which looks almost the same, and is often confused with baby bok choy. Image Credit.

Choy Sum or yu-choy: Choy sum, or choi sum, meaning ‘vegetable heart’ in Cantonese, is a flowering cabbage about a foot long. The term 'choi sum' also refers to the stem and tip of any vegetable in Cantonese. This cabbage has curved white stalks with deep green leaves and green buds, which can become flowers. This cabbage has a tender texture and a delicate flavor, similar to radish. Choy sum is harvested in winter and is excellent for stir fry’s. It is an intrinsic part of Cantonese cuisine and is very popular in Hong Kong and Southern China. Image credit.

Gai Choy or Gai-lohn: Gai choy is also know as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale. This cabbage looks very different from many of the other varieties. It has dark green, untidy looking, crinkled leaves, with light green stems. At its heart are light green buds. This leafy vegetable, known in China as tsai shim can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach or broccoli. Gai choy has a delicate texture with a hint of mustard-like flavor, and unlike bok choy which is edible in its entirety, only the leaves and thin stems should be consumed.

Ong Choy or Water Spinach: This leafy vegetable is used in a similar way to Chinese cabbage or spinach, although it is actually an aquatic plant from the Convolvolaceae family and not related.  

Nutritional Content: According to studies published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, Chinese cabbage demonstrated the highest antioxidant capacity of any vegetable. Chinese cabbage is a good source of the flavonoid, apigenin. There has been much research which demonstrates that apigenin has numerous health benefits, including a reduced risk of ovarian cancer ( International Journal of Cancer, April 2009) and leukemia. Apigenin is thought to be a powerful antioxidant with anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory properties. Other sources of apigenin are the herbs thyme and peppermint; and to a lesser extent red wine and tomatoes.

Cabbage varieties that have red or scarlet pigments also contain the group of flavonoids known as anthocyanins. Anthocyanins help neutralize harmful free radicals. They are antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and their consumption is linked with a reduced risk of colon caner, as well as heart diseases. The best source of anthocyanins in food is strawberries.

Chinese cabbage is a good source of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and folic acid. Bok choy is especially high in vitamin A and vitamin B6. This vegetable also contains iron and calcium. Cabbage should be cooked for a minimum of time because cooking reduces its antioxidant properties.

Primary image credit.

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Ron Siojo
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Posted on Feb 4, 2011
Beverly Anne Sanchez
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