That’s a confusing name, to be sure. Which is why we rarely call things Chinese cabbage anymore. See, there used to be two plants that traveled under that name, both subspecies of Brassica rapa. Meet Napa cabbage (Pekinensis) on the left and bok choi (Chinensis) on the right.
Napa cabbage by ilovebutter, on Flickr (CC license)
Bok choy by jules, on Flickr (CC license)
But that said, even with that confusion, I’m pretty sure I know which cabbage this recipe calls for. The October 24, 1872 edition of The (Indianapolis, Indiana) Evening Journal described the same one (after the description of daikon):
At the California State Fair, among the great display of vegetables, the Chinese produced several new varieties. Radishes, raised by a Celestial gardener, averaged 12 inches long and 3-1/2 inches in diameter. They were very crisp, not strong, and a superior radish. The Chinese cut them into convenient sizes, and dry what they do not have occasion to use green. They then cook them at any time. Chinese cabbage is a plant of the mustard species, resembling lettuce, and use as a salad. Chinese beans grow in pods a yard long, and were crisp and tender. Cabbages the size of a load of hay were not on exhibition at the State Fair this year.
So how can I tell? Well, in 1872, it’s possible they really thought this was a plant of the mustard species (actually, both cabbages here are relatives of the turnip). But it’s equally likely that they were merely describing one specific characteristic of bok choi: the loose leaves that don’t form a tight head, just like mustard greens.
On our recipe card, cutting bok choi into one-inch pieces is pretty common in Chinese cuisine, which makes it much easier to manage with chopsticks. Napa (the word is evidently derived from the Japanese word describing an edible leaf) is more commonly shredded. Cutting it into one-inch pieces will leave you with one-inch slabs of cabbage.
From a box sold in East Moline, Illinois.
Chinese Cabbage With Mustard
2 lb. Chinese cabbage
2 Tbsp. dry mustard
2 Tbsp. light soy sauce
2 tsp. vinegar
Discard outer leaves. Cut remainder into 1 inch slices across head. Boil in water to cover 1 minute and drain.
Mix other ingredients. Add cabbage; toss and chill.
(4 to 6 servings.)