By Tim and Louise Hazell
The innovative naturalist, Li Shizhen (1518-1593), popularized Chinese cabbage by bringing attention to its medicinal qualities. Chinese cabbage can refer to two groups of leaf vegetables often used in Chinese cuisine: the Pekinensis Group (napa cabbage) and the Chinensis Group (bok choy). These vegetables are both subspecies of the turnip and belong to the same genus as broccoli, and cauliflower.
Napa cabbage is a cool season annual vegetable that grows best when days are short and temperate. The plant develops an oblong head consisting of tightly arranged thick and crinkly light-green leaves with white prominent veins and a light-yellow innermost layer.
The vegetable is widely cultivated in Japan, Korea, and China where it is considered a sign of prosperity, often appearing as a motif in glass and porcelain figures. It became common in North American, European, and Australian markets after Asian immigrants arrived. The word “napa” comes from colloquial and regional Japanese and refers to the leaves of any vegetable when used as food.
The first notation of napa cabbage dates from the 15th century in the Yangtze River region in China. From there it spread to Korea and Japan. In Korean cuisine, it is the main ingredient of baechu-kimchi , the most common type of kimchi, but is also eaten raw as a wrap for pork or oysters, dipped in gochujang sauce. The outer, tougher leaves are used in soups. It can be added to stir-fry with other ingredients such as tofu, mushrooms, and zucchini and can also be eaten with “hot pot” meals. In European, American, and Australian kitchens, it is more commonly employed in a raw or cooked salad.
The Chinese kept attractive gardens from earliest times and held them in highest esteem. Every courtyard home had a small garden at its heart. The ancient Chinese were accomplished farmers, raising beans, melons, turnips, gourds, Chinese leeks, cabbage, amaranth, garlic, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots. Cabbage had a lucky connotation because it was associated with wealth. Its core is white and pure, and is a symbol of an untainted personality.
The mildly aromatic vegetable is rich in vitamin C and has a fair amount of calcium. Here is a superb side dish that is compatible with chicken, pork, or vegetarian menus. The recipe is noteworthy because it comes from a non-Asian source. Roasting caramelizes the leaves, allowing them to develop a rich, earthy flavor.
Roasted Napa Cabbage
6 tbsp. oil
7 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
6 cups napa cabbage, roughly cubed or shredded
Salt and black pepper to taste
A splash of Balsamic vinegar
Directions: Preheat oven to 450 F. Heat the oil in a large skillet on medium heat; add the garlic and cabbage. Cook, flipping with tongs until cabbage is coated with oil, approximately 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper and toss. Place the cabbage on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, turning