Where cab­bage is king

Ed­i­tor’s note: Tra­di­tional and fu­sion cooking styles, re­gional and in­ter­na­tional in­gre­di­ents and a new aware­ness of healthy eat­ing are all fac­tors con­tribut­ing to an ex­cit­ing time for Chi­nese cui­sine. We ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties.

China Daily European Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - By PAULINE D LOH paulined@chi­nadaily.com.cn

An em­peror and his fa­vorite con­sort used to ad­mire a del­i­cately carved or­na­ment made of jade that was prob­a­bly part of her dowry. It is a minia­ture head of hum­ble cab­bage, with a crisp white base and translu­cent frilled green leaves with two tiny in­sects rest­ing on the veg­etable.

The em­peror was Guangxu of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911), and this fa­mous piece of jade is called the Jade Cab­bage, cur­rently one of the main ex­hibits of the Palace Mu­seum in Taipei. It was taken from Yonghe Palace in the For­bid­den City, the im­pe­rial quar­ters of the con­sort Jin­fei.

This ex­quis­ite and valu­able piece of art lauds one of the most com­mon veg­eta­bles in China, while rep­re­sent­ing wishes for good har­vests and fer­til­ity.

The Chi­nese cab­bage is planted all over China, in all sea­sons, but it is in the cold north­east­ern prov­inces that it grows large and sweet and ten­der, and plays a star­ring role in the cui­sine.

Whole cab­bages are bought and stored for the long win­ter months, piled out­side in court­yards and on bal­conies. To­gether with the huge Shan­dong leeks, it is one of the veg­eta­bles that will fill the win­ter larder.

Huge truck­loads of white cab­bages roll into Bei­jing around Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber, plen­ti­ful and cheap. So cheap, in fact, that “as af­ford­able as white cab­bages” has be­come a pop­u­lar term for a great bar­gain.

Wise house­wives load their shop­ping trol­leys full of huge cab­bages, of­ten topped with a su­per huge bunch of leeks.

The veg­eta­bles are carted home and neatly ar­ranged on the bal­cony, or in a shel­tered part of the gar­den. Some­times an old blan­ket is thrown over the pile to de­ter open thiev­ery by ei­ther the two-legged or four-legged.

This has been a win­ter rit­ual for a very long time, from when times were hard and lo­gis­tics were limited. Some­times, cab­bages are pick­led. They are soaked in brine and fer­mented in huge vats as suan­cai, the “sour veg­eta­bles” that dong­bei cui­sine re­volves around. This is es­pe­cially com­mon in Liaon­ing and Hei­longjiang prov­inces.

The ying­cai or “hard dishes” of the north­east are hearty of­fer­ings such as thick slices of fatty pork belly stewed with roughly shred­ded pick­led cab­bage, or huge pots of sweet potato noo­dles cooked with more fer­mented cab­bage.

In our Bei­jing house­hold, tra­di­tions die hard, and the pile of cab­bages in the yard is slowly re­duced by daily soups and stir-fries. I have suc­ceeded in sneak­ing in car­rots and toma­toes to add some color to the win­ter diet.

The dabaicai cab­bage is amaz­ingly ver­sa­tile.

It can be finely sliced and tossed with vine­gar, sesame oil and a pinch of sugar for a crisp and re­fresh­ing salad. A bunch of blanched mung bean noo­dles pro­vide the tac­tile con­trast. This is es­pe­cially ap­pre­ci­ated deep in win­ter, when fresh sal­ads are hard to come by.

Cut into chunks and cooked with car­rots in a bone mar­row stock, it turns into a ten­der veg­etable stew to please the tooth­less old lady in the house, and is en­joyed just as much by those with a full set of teeth. Stewed cab­bage re­tains its sweet­ness and is one of the few leafy veg­eta­bles that can with­stand long cooking with­out los­ing color and taste.

The spouse’s fa­vorite is to have a pile of blanched cab­bage with his zha­jiang­mian, dry-tossed noo­dles with hot bean sauce. The blanched veg­eta­bles lighten the heavy, sa­vory noo­dles and make the dish a health­ier op­tion.

Some­times, I re­mem­ber my south­ern Chi­nese roots and cook a veg­e­tar­ian spe­cial with a base of braised cab­bage, with mush­rooms, ginkgo nuts, lo­tus seeds, peas and car­rots on top.

An­other dish is ten­der braised cab­bage hearts in thick chicken stock and top of milk or cream. This is straight from the im­pe­rial kitchens, and only the sweet­est, most ten­der hearts of the cab­bage are used.

It is sweet on sweet, with the nat­u­ral fla­vor of the cab­bage ac­cen­tu­ated by the chicken stock and shred­ded dried scallops. That touch of cream gives the dish a vel­vety smooth­ness that takes it to an­other level.

I also like mak­ing Rus­sian-in­spired cab­bage rolls with Chi­nese cab­bage in­stead of round cab­bages. For one thing, the leaves are larger and more pli­able, and they do not melt into noth­ing­ness.

Chi­nese cab­bage is also known as Napa cab­bage in the West, af­ter mi­grant Asian farm­ers in­tro­duced this veg­etable to the San Fran­cisco farm­ers’ mar­kets from their farms in Napa Val­ley across the Bay.

All very well, but I do think it’s about time we re­claim the name, in recog­ni­tion of Chi­nese cab­bage’s unique con­tri­bu­tion to the Mid­dle King­dom’s cuisines all th­ese thou­sands of years.

PHOTOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Stir-fried cab­bage with vine­gar and dried pep­per.

Braised cab­bage rolls

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