Napa cabbage

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It's one of my favorite vegetables.  Delicious prepared in so many different ways (in soups, stir fried, I even use it for salads).  And it almost never goes bad — I can keep it in my frig for a month or more.  Plus, it looks nice — aesthetically pleasing, with its exquisite shades of light green blending into white and crêpe-like crisp and crimped, delicate texture of the upper portions of the soft, frilly leaves next to glistening, gleaming, smoothly rounded surfaces of the basal rosette.

Quick question:  what's the first thing you think of when you hear the name "Napa cabbage"?  Write it down now before clicking to the second page of this post.

Before reading further, add what you wrote as a comment to the thread, if you feel so inclined.

Until this morning, I always immediately thought of the Napa Valley in California.  Of course, Napa Valley is famous for viticulture.  However, since the Central Valley and Salinas Valley of California produce an enormous amount of our nation's vegetables, I thought that the Napa Valley might also be famous for its produce, and that Napa cabbage might be named after it.  I was wrong.

The scientific name of Napa cabbage is Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis or Brassica rapa Pekinensis Group.  That is why, aside from Napa cabbage, it is also called Chinese cabbage.

The word "napa" in the name napa cabbage comes from colloquial and regional Japanese, where nappa (菜っ葉) refers to the leaves of any vegetable, especially when used as food. The Japanese name for this specific variety of cabbage is hakusai (白菜), a Sino-Japanese reading of the Chinese name (白菜), literally "white vegetable". The Korean name for napa cabbage, baechu (배추), is a nativized word from the Sino-Korean reading, baekchae, of the same Chinese character sets. Today in Mandarin Chinese, napa cabbage is known as dàbáicài (大白菜), literally "big white vegetable", as opposed to the "small white vegetable" that is known in English as bok choy. Other names include Chihili or Michihili. [VHM:  does anyone know where these latter two names come from?]

Outside of Asia, this vegetable is also referred to as Chinese cabbage. Regionally, it is also known as siu choy (from the Cantonese name, 紹菜), and celery cabbage. In the United Kingdom this vegetable is known as Chinese leaf or winter cabbage, in New Zealand as wong bok or won bok, and in the Philippines as wombok or pechay baguio. The name wombok [VHM:  a good food for wombats?] is also used in Australia. Another name used in English is petsai or pe-tsai. In Russia it's called pekinskaya kapusta (пекинская капуста), literally "Beijing cabbage".


One more question before signing off and going out to buy some baby bok choy (xiǎo báicài 小白菜):  if "xiǎo báicài 小白菜" (i.e., "little bok choy" ["little white vegetable"]) is "baby bok choy" and "dàbáicài 大白菜" (i.e., "big bok choy" ["big white vegetable"]) is another name for "napa cabbage", then what is "báicài 白菜" ("white vegetable")?

Ah, but that's just the beginning.  We also have "white bok choy", "rosie bok choy", "red bok choy", "tiny bok choy", and Shanghai bok choy".  And if you really want to dig deeper into the world of bok choy names, here's a taste:

Other than the ambiguous term "Chinese cabbage", the most widely used name in North America for the chinensis variety is simply bok choy (Cantonese for "white vegetable") or siu bok choy (Cantonese, for "small white vegetable"; as opposed to dai bok choy meaning "big white vegetable" which refers to the larger Napa cabbage). It can also be spelled pak choi, bok choi, and pak choy. In the UK and South Africa, the term pak choi is used. Less commonly, the descriptive English names Chinese chard, Chinese mustard, celery mustard, and spoon cabbage are also employed.

In Australia, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries has redefined many transcribed names to refer to specific cultivars. In addition, they have introduced the word buk choy to refer to a specific kind of cabbage distinct from pak choy.

In Mandarin Chinese, a common name is 青菜 qīng cài (literally "green vegetable").  Although the term 白菜 is pronounced "baak choi" in Cantonese, the same characters are pronounced "bái cài" by Mandarin speakers and used as the name for Napa cabbage which they call "Chinese cabbage" when speaking English.

In the Philippines, it is called péchay in Spanish and pichay or petsay in Tagalog.

What is labelled Bok Choy may come in 2 forms: traditional true bok choy (Chinese: 小白菜; lit. 'small white vegetable') or Shanghai bok choy (Chinese: 上海青; lit. 'Shanghai green'). Regular bok choy is usually more expensive and has a dark crinkly colored leaves and stem portions that are white and crisp texture that is more suitable to Cantonese style cooking, stir fries, and simple or raw preparations.  Shanghai bok choy has greater availability in most American Markets and has mild tasting spoon shaped leaves that are lighter green with stems that are jade green instead of white. The texture of Shanghai bok choy is less crisp and gets slimy if overcooked but otherwise can be substituted in many cooking applications when true bok choy is unavailable.


Sometimes when I contemplate the universe of bok choy names and types, I start to feel as though I'm going out of my mind.  The only way to bring myself back down to solid ground is grab hold of a big, solid head of CABBAGE (< Old North French caboche ["head"]; in dialect "cabbage"), from Old French caboce ["head"], diminutive, Latin caput "head" < PIE root *kaput- ["head"]).

As for kale, collard, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, rutabaga, mustard, rape, turnip, kai-lan, and all the other Brassica species, they will have to wait to another time — when my poor brain has recovered from the current cruciferous crisis.

Selected readings


  1. Guy Plunkett III said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 7:08 pm

    Napa Valley, California

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 7:24 pm

    One of the Chinese cabbages, the one that's the color of a Luna moth and is shaped like a rugby ball.

    To be honest, I knew about the cabbage as a gardener before I knew about the wine-growing region as a wine drinker.

  3. STW said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 7:29 pm

    I know that coleslaw with Napa cabbage makes for a interesting variation.

  4. Ross Presser said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 7:34 pm

    I had honestly never heard the noun Napa cabbage before reading it here today.

  5. SlideSF said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 7:34 pm

    Chinese food or Kimchi

  6. SlideSF said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 7:39 pm

    I had actually heard of and eaten Napa cabbage before I was ever aware of Napa Valley. Of course, this was well before drinking age, and before I moved to the Bay Area. Back then (early 1970s) it was more commomly spelled Nappa cabbage.

  7. Calvin said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 7:49 pm

    Here is a good reference for all these names for different varieties in the cabbage family: 紹菜, 津白, 黃芽白, 大白菜, 大黃芽白, etc.:

    The 青菜 variety, the Cantonese 白菜, is also called 奶白菜:

  8. Josh said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 9:22 pm

    If you'll permit a tangent, the Japanese "kabocha" squash, whose name sounds a lot like "caboche" and is rather head-shaped itself, is thought to have made its way to Japan from Cambodia via Portuguese traders and therefore (according to the general theory) has a name that is a Japanese-ified version of the Portuguese word for "Cambodia," "camboja."

  9. Clément said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 9:35 pm

    You write:

    "One more question before signing off and going out to buy some baby bok choy (xiǎo báicài 小白菜): if "xiǎo báicài 小白菜" (i.e., "little bok choy" ["little white vegetable"]) is "baby bok choy" and "dàbáicài 大白菜" (i.e., "big bok choy" ["big white vegetable"]) is another name for "napa cabbage", then what is "báicài 白菜" ("white vegetable")?"

    Looking at pictures for 小白菜, I don't think "baby bok choy" is the right translation: the word seems to cover both baby bok choy *and* full-size bok choy, which is three or four times larger. To specify baby bok choy, I would use 上海白菜 (check out Google images)

    Part of the reason the same stem 白菜 is used for both veggies is that there are many intermediate varieties in China between bok choy and napa cabbage (they look like bok choy but with leaves that are more curly and more closely packed together).

  10. Neil Kubler said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 10:19 pm

    The first Wikipedia citation above mentions that "Another name used in English is petsai or pe-tsai." And the second Wikipedia citation states that "In the Philippines, it is called péchay in Spanish and pichay or petsay in Tagalog." Clearly these names derive from Southern Min/Hokkien pets'ai "white cabbage, cabbage", written with the characters 白菜. The great majority of the over one million ethnic Chinese in the Philippines who emigrated there over 200 years ago came from the Southern Min/Hokkien-speaking regions of southern Fujian province in China.

  11. RfP said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 10:30 pm

    The first thing I thought of was the ever-present dilemma of thinking of this vegetable as Nappa (Nahp-pah) in my head and needing to communicate with people at the grocery store, who mostly call it Napa cabbage, pronounced like the nearby California city.

    So even when I’m talking to people who are either Nikkei (which I’m not, but lived amongst for many years) or who might know the traditional pronunciation, I defer to the everyday pronunciation, just like pretty much everyone else. But I have to translate…

  12. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 10:54 pm

    In my limited experience, as I lived in West Philly from the middle of the 70’s to early 80’s, I never heard of “Napa cabbage”. It was always “Chinese cabbage” in Oriental food stores there. It was an essential ingredient of jiaozi, as your entry “Dumpling ingredients” shows, and we made them quite often.

    I just learned from the Japanese version of Wikipedia ( that what is called bok choy or “small white vegetable” was only introduced to Japan after the normalization of the relationship with China in 1972. I certainly don’t recall seeing it before. Perhaps they had it in high-level, expensive Chinese restaurants. Now it’s found everywhere.

    For the aesthetics you could perhaps mention the famous Jadeite Cabbage in Taipei (

  13. Jason said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 11:16 pm

    Up to the different climate conditions, there can be different varieties of the vegetable.
    Therefore, there can be various names for it.

  14. alex wang said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 11:36 pm

    napa valley

  15. C Thornett said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 12:29 am

    I thought of a cabbage-like vegetable, but that slot has round and pointed forms for me. As it happens, I have both a head of 'chinese leaf' (mainly destined for salad) and a pointed cabbage variety in the fridge–and there are some round winter cabbages out in the garden. If I have ever come across the name 'Napa cabbage', I didn't associate it with what I call chinese leaf, and would have guessed 'Napa' meant Napa valley.

  16. R. Fenwick said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 1:03 am

    The Australian English name wombok, like yum cha and dim sim (cognate with but not the same thing as dim sum, a phrase virtually never used here). In this instance it's a simplification of wong4 ngaa4 baak6.

    It also seems to have taken a certain amount of root in the Philippines, where Filipino wombok now serves as a means of disambiguating the broader pechay ~ petsay (which can refer either to Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis or to B. rapa subsp. chinensis); either wombok alone or the compound pechay wombok is used in this sense. (And since pechay is itself from Minnan pe̍hchhài, that means that the first and last syllables of pechay wombok are cognate, both corresponding to written Chinese 白.)

  17. R. Fenwick said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 1:06 am

    Urgh. I accidentally some words from the previous comment. Addition is bolded:

    The Australian English name wombok is from Cantonese, like yum cha and dim sim.

  18. Claw said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 1:14 am

    I came here to say what R. Fenwick just said. I’ll add that the characters for wong4 ngaa4 baak6 are 黃芽白. This is the usual term for napa cabbage in Cantonese.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 3:49 am

    Not being familiar with the cabbage, the first word to come to mind was "napalm".

    But "frig" ? Is this the standard American form ? I know of refrigerator, I know of its contraction 'fridge, but frig ? And is it pronounced /frɪdʒ/ or /frɪg/ ? For we Britons, "frig" is known only as a euphemism for the f-word, typically in constructs such as "friggin' thing".

  20. Chas Belov said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 3:52 am

    I thought "Chinese food" and secondarily "Napa County" (where you can find the Napa valley).

    I (apparently mistakenly) thought baby bok choy was choi sum 菜心. I see the Wikipedia article on bok choy reports 小白菜 as being true boy choy rather than baby bok choy and doesn't even mention "baby bok choy."

    In any case I have a strong preference for baby bok choy over adult bok choy. Not sure when baby bok choy becomes adult or whether it passes through youth bok choy and teenage bok choy stages on its way between the two.

  21. Chas Belov said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 3:58 am

    @Philip Taylor: I've always spelled it fridge and my grandmother called it "the Frigidare." Not sure whether it mattered to her whether the refrigerator actually was Frigidare brand.

  22. Chas Belov said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 3:59 am


  23. Philip Taylor said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 4:27 am

    "Frigidare" — well, yes, it is not unknown in the UK for someone to refer to their Dyson as their Hoover ! For most Britons, "hoover" is just a generic term for a vacuum cleaner, no matter made by whom, and I assume that in your grandparent's part of the world the same was true for Frigidares and refrigerators.

  24. R. Fenwick said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 5:01 am

    @Philip Taylor: The euphemistic use in that sense probably comes from the verb frig "to masturbate, to stimulate sexually" (with several suggested origins, but a borrowing of Latin fricāre "to rub" seems most likely to me). It had some currency in late 19th-century England—at least insofar as it makes numerous appearances in erotica of the time—but subsequently has become quite archaic in that sense, perhaps because of its repurposing as a euphemism for the more intense sexual act.

    (Though still unrelated, of course, to the original sense in which Victor meant it.)

  25. Michael Watts said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 5:17 am

    For most Britons, "hoover" is just a generic term for a vacuum cleaner, no matter made by whom

    "Hoover" is not available as a generic noun in American English. Interestingly, it is available as a verb.

  26. Joyce Melton said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 5:22 am

    Bok choy. I thought they were just varieties of each other.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 7:12 am

    On "frig", Wiktionary has this as one (#2) of its etymological notes:

    Clipping of refrigerator.

    IPA(key): /fɹɪdʒ/
    Audio (UK)
    Rhymes: -ɪdʒ
    Homophone: fridge


    frig (plural friges)

    Misspelling of fridge.
    (Britain, slang) An insulated bin, box or cabinet used to keep food or beverages cold.

    Synonym: cooler
    I often store beverages in my frig to keep them cold.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 7:27 am

    @Hiroshi Kumamoto:

    Thanks for mentioning the famous (but not very old, only 19th c.) Jadeite Cabbage in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. It was subliminally in my mind as I was writing my description of what Napa Cabbage looks like. Along with the Meat-shaped Stone (Dongpo Pork), I have seen it several times in my various visits to the museum.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 7:34 am

    On "Hoover", its headquarters and main factory were in North Canton, Ohio. I was born in Canton and grew up in East Canton, so have a feeling of closeness to Hoover vacuum cleaners. Compared to Hoover (founded in 1908), Dyson (founded in 1991) is a mere toddler.

  30. Peter Taylor said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 7:47 am

    The first thing I thought was "What's that?" Never heard of it.

  31. Moa said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 8:51 am

    Red wine (Napa) and white cabbage. I only know the name Chinese cabbage, and not the name Napa cabbage, so I didn't think of that.

  32. Thomas said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 10:06 am

    Before reading this post:
    The expression does not evoke anything specific. I am just never sure which language this word "napa" comes from. Having learned both Chinese and Korean (to some extend), I am vaguely sure that it must be Korean, because it does not quite fit as a Chinese name. 哪怕白菜 is the only way my head could render it in Chinese and it is obviously a silly spelling. I probably think it's Korean because I never reached a good level of Korean and 나파 looks like a legitimate Korean word.

    After reading the post:
    Well, I could have known better. I honestly should have thought about Japanese.

  33. jin defang said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 10:44 am

    and let's not forget Brassica oleracea, aka ornamental cabbage. Botanical purists will object that they're technically kale, although they're the same species—and plants with broad, flat leaves and contrasting leaf margins are called cabbage.
    of any of you are lucky enough to have the GOJ's annual 2021 bonsai calendar. "Miss January" is designed around an understated ornamental cabbage.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 10:49 am

    From Cecilia Segawa Seigle:

    Oh, what a looong, voluminous, extremely thorough, impressively erudite discussion of mere 白菜!!! We all learn so much from you, not only about the meaning of the word in question, but the process of its development and the methodology of looking into its history.
    Hakusai for us Japanese is our favorite material for お漬物(Otsukemono)ーour type of pickles, which is very different from American pickles and – also I assume, different from the Chinese way of pickling vegetables. We appreciate pickles as necessary item for every Japanese meal, but especially for breakfast. It is absolutely compulsory to have tsukemono with white rice in the morning, if you are having a Japanese-style breakfast.
    白菜のお漬物 is appreciated in each stage of pickling. Those that are pickled for only a day (or much less than that) are called Asazuke 浅漬け(light pickling), and preferred by many, over the 白菜 pickled for a long duration. A Google instruction says 3 or 4 hours of picking is enough for Asazuke hakusai, but use salt and konbu 昆布(seaweed) when pickling (konbu gives a pecial taste (aji 味). Salt and konbu are washed off before serving Asazuke hakusai. Look up the recipe on Google's Shirogohan (白ごはん.com) for pictures and recipe in Japanese. I didn't know Napa was Nappa (菜っ葉)How amazing!
    Look up Tsukemono (漬物 ) in Google.

    Thank you so much for this interesting information for Napa cabbage!!

  35. bks said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 11:33 am

    I thought of the produce section at Safeway.

  36. Tim said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 12:59 pm

    How the hell is there a vegetable called "rape"?
    Take your time.

  37. Greg said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 2:04 pm

    @Tim: Chambers dictionary gives four meanings for rape — unlawful sexual intercourse (by force); the refuse left after wine-making; the vegetable; and a division of Sussex. All of them have separate origins but have come to be represented by the same word.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 2:07 pm

    From Alan Kennedy:

    Of course, living in California, I also immediately thought of Napa Valley.

    As you noted above, another valley in California, the so-called Central Valley, is one of the world's major producers of vegetables. Napa Valley's agricultural output consists almost entirely of grapes.

    Many of the vegetable growers in California originally came from China and Japan.

    My head was spinning after reading your fascinating post.

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 2:20 pm

    Greg — you raise a interesting question in my mind when you write "All of them have separate origins but have come to be represented by the same word". Are they "represented by the same word", or are they represented by four different words, all of which are homophonous ?

  40. Philip Taylor said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 2:23 pm

    I should, of course, have said "all of which are spelled the same and all of which are homophonous".

  41. SlideSF said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 2:37 pm

    @Michawl Watts – Not so. In my Midwestern US household we had a hoover, an osterizer, and a frigidaire, All sold under the name Kenmore. We used the hoover to vacuum the carpet.

    @Tim – Anyone who reads bilingual packaging labels knows that rape is a kind of cheese!

  42. Batchman said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 5:30 pm

    National Auto Parts Association?

  43. David Morris said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 7:34 pm

    My vocabulary doesn't extend to varieties of cabbage. Either it's cabbage or it's not.

  44. Keith said,

    January 18, 2021 @ 3:48 am

    It's Chinese Leaf in the UK, and I recognised your description of its great longevity when kept in the fridge. When I saw this on sale in the supermarkets of New Jersey under the name "Napa cabbage", I thought it might be grown in Napa Valley, California.

    My mother used to use it to make what she called "lion's head meatballs": minced pork mixed with chopped spring onion and grated or finely chopped ginger, shaped into balls, browned and then poached in broth with Chinese leaf. To serve, she would put a circle of poached leaf is put on a plate, the meatball in the centre of the leaf; the meatball is the lion's head and the leaf around it is the lion's mane.

  45. Nat said,

    January 18, 2021 @ 3:55 am

    "Napa Valley" for me, certainly. I really have no other associations with "Napa". If it's relevant, I live in Southern California and used to live in Berkeley.

  46. Hans said,

    January 18, 2021 @ 4:43 am

    Napa Valley.

    Even though I barely even knew that there is something called Napa Valley. Then I read in the remainder of the post that it's famous for wine. I am sure I have heard that before, but I am not sure that I would have remembered it before the refresher. I did know that the valley had to be in California or Florida.

    I am familiar with pak choi, but only under this name. I never heard "Napa cabbage" before. So I had only the sound of the name to go by.

  47. Robert E Harris said,

    January 18, 2021 @ 1:45 pm

    stir fry

  48. Monscampus said,

    January 18, 2021 @ 7:26 pm

    As I only ever heard of napa leather aka Nappa (which I never was tempted to eat), I didn't write it down. i understand the leather also takes its name from Napa, California. Fair enough, the process of creating it was created just there. But why should anyone not American identify the Chinese cabbage with California?

    This reminds me of Elizabeth Wurtzel's excitement over discovering a place called Ipswich in England and expecting to get the "famous Ipswich clams" there. Alas, she happened to be in Suffolk then and not in Massachusetts.

  49. Biscia said,

    January 19, 2021 @ 6:13 am

    @Tim: same reason we have rapeseed. Although I think as a vegetable it means either rapini or field mustard, which are slightly different plants. Rapini/rabe is called cime di rapa or just plain rape (/ˈrape/) in my part of Italy (as opposed to the more southern name, broccoletti), so at this time of year I often find my own bilingual grocery lists a little unsettling when I mentally read them in English.

  50. Michael Watts said,

    January 19, 2021 @ 10:53 pm

    you raise a interesting question in my mind when you write "All of them have separate origins but have come to be represented by the same word". Are they "represented by the same word", or are they represented by four different words, all of which are homophonous ?

    I would say they are vanishingly unlikely to be the same word. Chinese people have extreme difficulty in using the correct English pronoun ("he" or "she") for a person. This is so even though, when writing, they observe exactly the same distinction that English does. My conclusion is that 他 tā "he" and 她 tā "she" are indeed, in Chinese, the same word, and the spelling difference is artificial.

    But I do not imagine that an English speaker would struggle to choose between "luz" (the substance that banishes darkness) and "ligero" (opposite of 'heavy') when forming a sentence in nonnative Spanish, despite the fact that the two words have identical pronunciation and spelling in English. Those are two different words.

  51. Gregg Painter said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 1:56 pm

    I never thought of napa cabbage as bok choy. It is in a class of its own, and is always at Safeway. Now, at the local Asian supermarket, there are a dozen kinds of bok choy. One of my favorites looks nothing like regular bok choy, baby or big: Taiwanese bok choy. It's very leafy and spicy.

  52. Roberto Flabier said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 5:30 pm

    I think of how weird it is to name a vegetable after an auto parts store. I think of a cabbage that tastes a bit like motor oil.

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