When I was growing up, nappa cabbage sold for 30 cents per 1/2 kg during the fall harvest in Tianjin, China and became sustenance for the proletariat family throughout the winter months. Stacked in pyramids, it wasn’t uncommon for households to stash a pile beside their respective doors in the unheated apartment hallway cooled by the winter air. Brined and stewed with pork and potatoes, braised with chicken and shiitake mushrooms, stir-fried with tofu, or minced and mixed with meat as part of a dumpling, nappa cabbage was always there, a comforting ingredient, something to make a meal stretch and the belly happy.
I was lucky enough to be born into a family and a time without hunger. Unlike my father, as well as many others in his generation and the generations above him, I never associated (brined) nappa cabbage with being a famine food. Its presence on the dinner table grew as October turned into January, but skillfully prepared in a variety of ways, I always enjoyed seeing it there.
Since moving out of my parents’ place, I rarely ate nappa cabbage. But recently I’ve felt a growing affection (or perhaps nostalgia) for this vegetable. Searching up a recipe on a Chinese cooking website, I had a distinctly different experience from looking on a Western one. Precise measurements are rare and quantities are given as “a little”, “a small handful”, or “an appropriate amount”– frustrating and liberating all at the same time.
I made this dish with my friend Christine. It was the last time she came over to my apartment before she left Vancouver. So there are memories of her embedded in this somewhere too.
Spicy and Sour Nappa Cabbage
- 2 tbsp dried goji berries (optional)
- 1/4 cup boiling hot water (optional)
- 2-3 tbsp oil
- 3-5 dried red chilies, in half
- 1/2 head of nappa cabbage, cut into 1.5 x 2 inch rectangles
- 2-3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 1/2 tsp salt (to taste)
- 1-2 tsp corn starch
- If using goji berries, soak in boiling hot water for 15 minutes, drain and set aside.
- Make a slurry by dissolving vinegar, salt, and corn starch, set aside.
- In a large wok, heat oil over high until hot, add dried chilies and cook until fragrant but not burning.
- Add nappa cabbage, stirring to ensure even cooking. Turn heat down to medium if needed.
- When cabbage is almost ready, add slurry and goji berries (if using). Stir and cook until cornstarch thickens the sauce, about a minute more. Serve immediately.