What Is Chinese Cabbage vs Chinese Broccoli (Chinese Kale)

Ashleigh Smith + photo

Ashleigh Smith

Jun 7
6 min read
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Chinese Kale on a table

You may have noticed that we have added many Asian seed varieties to our inventory. As we have been educating ourselves about these seeds we have learned that things can get pretty fuzzy when it comes to the difference between Chinese Cabbage and Chinese Broccoli. So, I thought I would shed some light on the subject.

What are Chinese Cabbages?

Chinese Cabbages are scientifically named Brassica rapa var. pekinensis. You can also find them listed as da bai cai which is their Mandarin name, bok choi in Cantonese, and nappa in Japanese. While all of these names look different they are actually referencing the same plant.

These cabbages are similar to western varieties you are familiar with. When it comes to consuming Chinese Cabbages you will notice they are a bit more lettuce and celery-like. Their leaves have a higher water content than western varieties giving them a crisp and refreshing crunch. When it comes to their looks most Chinese cultivars will appear with green or red leaves that are connected to a white stalk and bunched into a compact head.

Chinese Cabbages come in 3 types: compact barrel-shaped Napa, tall compact heads with lacy Savoy-type leafed Michihili Napa, and loose-leaf (may look similar to Chinese Broccoli after being cleaned and prepped). The first type, Napa, has the best storage abilities with its tight compact head habit. You can also expect Michihili cultivars to take a little bit longer to mature, however they are more stress-tolerant and resistant to bolting and black specks.

Growing Chinese Cabbage:

Make sure you are planting directly into rich, loamy soil. It is important to have nutrient-rich soil with good organic matter. This will provide the food your plants need while retaining adequate moisture levels.

  • Light: Full sun, some partial shade is good for hot climates.
  • Planting Depth: ½”
  • Sow seeds about 4” apart and thin to 12” apart.

A Word of Advice:

Rotate where you plant members of the cabbage family to reduce issues with pests from year to year.

Use fertilizer since cabbages can require a lot of nutrients.

Use floating row covers to protect from pests.

Use shade covers in hot climates to prevent bolting.

Harvesting:

Chinese cabbages are ready to be harvested when the cabbage head feels firm. You can plant both spring and fall crops when temperatures are not too high. For your fall harvest pay attention to freezing temperatures. Your crop can handle a light freeze, but be sure to harvest everything before a hard freeze (28 F and below).

Be Aware

When growing Chinese Cabbage it is best to directly seed as they do not handle the stress of transplanting well. Too much stress can lead to early bolting as well as temperatures below 50 F for over a week.

Because Chinese Cabbages are a part of the Brassica Genus they are susceptible to the same types of pests. These include flea beetles, cabbageworm, cutworms, cabbage root flies, and aphids. They are also extremely susceptible to clubroot and other fungal diseases.

To prevent these issues make sure your soil is well-draining. This allows the roots to breathe while still being moist, and not wet. To help with other soil-borne issues you can use oats as a companion plant. Planting oats around your Chinese Cabbage will allow you to benefit from its natural antibiotic properties while speeding up growth and attracting beneficial insects.

How To Use Chinese Cabbage (bok choi, nappa, da bai cai)

Because cabbage itself does not have a strong flavor, it tends to take up the flavor of other things it is cooked with. Compared to common cabbages, Chinese cultivars have a more mild and sweet taste. As Chinese Cabbages are cooked they become even sweeter.

Most traditionally cabbages are paired with meat, stir-fries, used with oyster sauces, seafood, and as a stuffing such as in potstickers. To store for longer periods of time you can dry cabbages in the sun or pickle them. You can try your favorite Chinese Cabbages in sukiyaki or shabu-shabu to impress your friends and family.


What are Chinese Broccoli and Chinese Kale?

Chinese Broccoli and Chinese Kale are actually the exact same plant. They go by the scientific name Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra. Like Chinese Cabbage they are a type of Brassica. This means that while they share many pest issues and growing procedures, they are completely different plants. These plants are a part of the kale family, but because they are harvested as the flower buds they are commonly called Chinese Broccoli.

This name also is used because of the manner in which this vegetable is prepared. Like common broccoli, this vegetable is usually cooked with leaves and stems together. To identify Chinese Kale you will want to look for its thick green stalks, dark blue-green leaves, and white flowers. You may see them listed under other common names like kaai laan tsoi (Cantonese) and gai lan (Mandarin).

Growing Chinese Kale (Chinese Broccoli, Kaai Laan Tsoi, Gai Lan):

Generally, Chinese Kale is easier to grow than other vegetables of the cabbage family. It still faces the same types of pests as I mentioned before but to a more minor degree. One of the best things about growing Chinese Broccoli is that it grows quickly. You can expect it to shoot up to a height of about 18”. Their fast growth provides you with a tender and mild green for your cooking. Like most Brassicas you can expect these plants to bolt in hot climates. However, you can use tools such as shade cloth to extend your harvest time for these cool-season vegetables.

  • Light: Full Sun
  • Planting Depth:¼”
  • Sow seeds about 3” apart and thin to 8”

Harvesting:

Be on the lookout for when your plants are developing flower buds. You will want to make your harvest just as the buds are beginning to open. When they are ready, cut about 6-8” from the top. This will push your plant to develop more side growth for a larger harvest throughout the season.

How To Use Chinese Kale:

Like the common broccoli, Chinese Broccoli has a slightly bitter and earthy flavor to it. This is why you will usually see it cooked in some way. You can use it in soups, stir-fried, sauteed, or steamed. Because it is widely used across Asian cuisines you are sure to find something for you.

To prepare the stalks for cooking, start by washing your fresh harvest. Peel the stems to remove the outer layer of the tough skin. Then remove any tough leaves you don’t want to include. You should be left with a succulent stem, some leaves, and a small flowering top. Cut this stem into 2-3” segments that are easier to manage while cooking.

For quick cooking methods add the thicker stem segments first followed by the medium and finally the thin and leafy parts. This will prevent you from overcooking the thin and tender areas while ensuring the thick stems are fully done.

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