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Bok Choy Is Bai Cai, and part of a big Family

by Christina M. Doubrava

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Fall Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(3) page(s): 17 and 18

Imagine a vegetable in use in China for forty centuries. Bai cai is one of the most ancient vegetables, is still find being used there, and it is used now in the United States. Brassica chinensis, its botanical name, is known in the western world by a variety of names and there are variations galore. Some are called Chinese white cabbage, others Shanghai cabbage, still others Chinese flat cabbage; and then there are the relatives called Chinese flowering cabbage, Chinese kale, mustard cabbage, bamboo mustard cabbage and dozens of other cousins. Often Called baak choi, bok choi, or pak choy, or any variation thereof, based on the Cantonese pronunciation of this vegetable, in Pinyin, the official transliteration of the Chinese is correctly spelled bai cai.

Archaeologists excavating the remains of a Yangshao farming village in Banpo (also written as Pan po) in northern China, not far from Xian, unearthed brassica seeds found in pottery jars at this site. They were radio-carbon dated and determined to be circa 5000 BCE. Brassica's seem to have been among the earliest cultivated food plants of China, and they were cooked and enjoyed. It is also probable that they were among the first seeds cultivated for their edible oil, the mustard seeds among them thought to be the earliest.

The importance of this cabbage in South China is known, what may not be as well known is its importance in North China. This is well illustrated by a household survey of seventy-three lower income families done in Beijing (then called Peking) in 1926 and 1927. All families used cabbage, celery cabbage the most common, and all cabbages together were the leading vegetable used. In North China, many cabbages are stored for long periods, a few are available fresh year-round. In South China, huge numbers of cabbages and their relatives are harvested throughout the year. They are always popular, a large bowl of rice, some bean curd, and a plate of cabbage are daily components of meals in South China.

This family of cai are the most popular leafy vegetables not only in China but throughout Southeast Asia. Hong Kong farmers grow over twenty kinds including 'horse’s tail,' 'horse’s ear,' and 'soup spoon' varieties, among others. Many Asian countries grow the same and others including a species of this family known as 'rosette pak choi.' This one is a small plant with a rosette of uptight leaves, thickened and flattened with white petioles or leaf stalks and smooth, rounded blades.

Bai cai has snow-white stalks, a slightly bulbous base and dark green leaves. Bai cai sum (bok choy sum) is different in appearance due to its yellow flowers. In Cantonese, sum refers to younger and flowering when applied to vegetables. It literally means the vegetable’s 'heart.' Bai cai sum is slightly smaller, with narrower stalks, and its green leaves are a shade lighter. It is of interest that the Chinese cabbage, bai cai, is also known as 'white vegetable,' 'song cai' or 'high vegetable,' and 'huang ya bai' which means 'yellow bud white.'

Chinese white cabbages can vary in size from quite small, some ten centimetres or four inches long to very large, at least three times that length. The smaller type is called Shanghai bai cai and in American markets 'baby bok choy.' It is especially sought after for banquet dishes and is adored braised whole. The leaves of the Shanghai bok choy are spoon-shaped and the stems flatter and a bit more green than regular bai cai. Although it can grow to a foot or more in height, it is often harvested as a baby plant of six inches or less. You can buy them four or five plants tied as a bunch. or purchase them loose and pay by the pound.

Bai cai was introduced in the United States in 1880, and at that time called pak choy. It is currently growing in popularity and almost always available for sale in oriental markets. Seeds can be obtained to grow them in a home garden. For avid gardeners, when ordering from a seed catalogue, look under two headings: 'Chinese Cabbage' and 'Chinese Mustard.'

Chinese cabbage is described as either 'heading' or 'non-heading,' sometimes, as 'leafy.' The heading type is true Chinese cabbage, Brassica pekinensis, and the leafy type is Brassica chinensis. Early cabbages grew straight up rather than in the round. The plant’s Latin name was caulia, which means stem or a very thick stalk. Most early cabbages resembled, that is, had the shape of bai cai. It is not known when cabbages headed up. However, when Caesar invaded Britain, he brought spherical cabbages along as K-rations; these are noted in his diaries as i>capitalae, which means 'with heads.'

Bai cai does not form a head. One plant has ten- to twenty-inch stalks, clusters of thick broad-based white or greenish-white stalks with loose, broad dark green leaves resembling chard. These are attractive vegetables. Widely cultivated and available throughout the year, they are cool weather vegetables that do best when sown in July or August. They produce an autumn crop in the northern portion of the United States; and can be planted as early as March or as late as September in warmer areas. Be aware this is not successful as a spring crop. Gardeners should not try to grow them at any season other than fall in the North or winter in the South.

These vegetables should be grown in very rich, well-drained but moist soil. Sow seeds a quarter or half-inch deep about eight inches to fifteen inches apart depending on varieties. Keep the rows fourteen to twenty-two inches apart. When plants are about four inches tall, thin them to about six inches apart. These small plants make excellent eating. Frtilize lightly every two weeks and mulch to keep the soil cool to get through some of the hotter weather. Bai cai is best used fresh. They are always being harvested somewhere and markets have them at any time, but with less availability in midsummer.

This vegetable can be a two-in-one, that is, the leaves cooked like spinach and the ribs like asparagus. When preparing this or any vegetable, make sure to wash it well, separating the leaves so that any sand between them is washed away. Small plants can be kept whole but for bigger ones, after separating the leaves, trim off the dark green leaf, leaving only a narrow border along the white leaf rib. The tough green portion of the leaf is excellent used for soup or deep frying. Cook this vegetable quickly, doing otherwise and the crisp texture and flavor are lost.

When purchasing bai cai, choose fresh looking, crisp-firm ones with fresh greens and plump stems. The size of the plant indicates how tender it is. The smaller, the better, especially in the summer because hot weather toughens the stalks. Be certain to look at the bottom of the stalk. If there is a hole, it is old and fibrous. Avoid limp, yellow-leafed vegetables. After purchasing, store them in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator wrapped tightly in paper towels. They can keep there for up to a week.

Bai cai is nutritious and versatile. Its entire family of cabbages are important because they provide vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin B1, vitamin B2 and niacin. Cabbages, like other greens, can also be significant sources of riboflavin and are a good addition to a high fiber diet. And, they are low in calories, three and a half ounces have only about fourteen calories.

Not only is bai cai an important food source, all of it is used in Chinese medicine. The flavor is sweet-astringent and its nature is cool, affecting the stomach and large intestine. Bai Cai can cool a fever, quench thirst, and benefit intestines and stomach. Chinese cabbage is recommended for hot cough with excessive phlegm; they say to take an appropriate quantity of Chinese cabbage, add a little sugar and water, simmer and serve. It is also believed to relieve dermatitis caused from paint. For that, Chinese medicine recommends to crush some for its juice and apply to affected parts. Chinese medical doctors use it for petrol poisoning, small fibres in the eye, and other needs.

Flowering Chinese cabbage (Brassica campestris) is another variety of cabbage. The flowering cabbage or 'bird rape,' 'you cai' or 'oil vegetable,' is also called 'cai tai' or 'vegetable moss,' and 'you cai tai' or 'oil vegetable moss,' even 'cai xin' or 'vegetable heart.' The stem of this variety is rough and grows vertically, the base of the leaf embraces the main stem. The flower is yellow, the seed is brown and round. The tender parts of the stem, the leaf, and seeds are all used in Chinese medicine. The flavor of the plant is sweet-astringent as is bai cai, its nature cool. It affects the lungs, stomach and great intestine.

The flavor of the seed is pungent, its nature warm, and it also affects the large intestine. The plant can cool fevers, help eliminate poison, disperse blood poisoning and diminish swelling. The seed is believed to lubricate the intestines, improve blood circulation, and promote vital energy. The following are examples of various traditional medicinal applications for flowering Chinese cabbage. They are used for vomiting blood after an accident, for dysentery with bleeding and stomach pain, for intestinal obstruction, blood poisoning, stomach pains after childbirth, boils on the fingers, even for mastitis.

All varieties of these vegetables are versatile because they can be cooked in many different ways. Try some leaves, tender leaf-stalks, and in some varieties, use the flowering stems raw in salads. Use them stir-fried, steamed or pickled. Some varieties also produce an edible oil; if you can, purchase and try that.

To use Chinese mustard greens , if salted and left to pickle for a few days, rinse them, then slice and served alone or stir-fry them with meat or seafood, especially squid. Another suggestion is to wash and separate each leaf, parboil for five minutes or until the color changes, drain, separate each leaf and then let them dry in the sun, and store in a cool dry place. When you want to use them, soak for about two hours then boil until tender.

Travelers to the East are always bringing back photographs of clothes lines of bok choy hung out to dry. In China, bok choy is dried and stored for a few weeks before being used. This is called bai cai kan. When the leaves are pickled in salt, they quickly lose half their vitamin B content. But when pickled in a paste of salt and rice bran, the vitamin B concentration can be increased.

Many Chinese vegetables are not well-known outside of China. Bai cai is not one of them. When using some, keep in mind that vegetable use is ancient and you can use old recipes, develop new ones, and try the one that follows and look for others on this magazie's website: www.flavorandfortune.com
Steamed Duck with Green Vegetables
1 three-pound duck
4 slices fresh ginger
8 ounces bai cai
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1. Place the duck in boiling water and boil for three to five minutes. Then remove the duck, rinse it and put it in a bowl or casserole with a cover, adding just enough boiling water to cover.
2. Put bowl in a steamer, add ginger and steam for one hour.
3. Add the bai cai and steam another thirty minutes, or until the duck is tender.
4. Add the sherry and salt to the liquid, cut the duck in pieces, if desired, and serve.

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