Spicy and Sour Nappa Cabbage 酸辣白菜

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.
Sour and Spicy Nappa Cabbage 酸辣白菜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

Serves: 2-4

Ingredients

  • 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

Method

  1. If using goji berries, soak in boiling hot water for 15 minutes, drain and set aside.
  2. Make a slurry by dissolving vinegar, salt, and corn starch, set aside.
  3. In a large wok, heat oil over high until hot, add dried chilies and cook until fragrant but not burning.
  4. Add nappa cabbage, stirring to ensure even cooking. Turn heat down to medium if needed.
  5. 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.

Eggplant Salad

To me, summer begs for light, cool, refreshing dishes, and this definitely hits the spot. This recipe uses steam to cook the eggplant, requires very little oil and produces a soft, silky texture that’s quite pleasing to the mouth. Eggplant by itself can be a little bland, so here it gets a helping hand from its good buddy garlic, and a traditional Chinese salad dressing made from vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  

Asian Eggplant Salad
Asian eggplant salad 

This dish begins with fresh Asian eggplants, which are long, narrow and has a more tender flesh and thinner skin compared with the more common varieties.

Asian Eggplants
Asian eggplants 

Wash the eggplants, remove the stems, and cut into segments about 3 inches long. Cut each segment in half widthwise, and make 2 or 3 slits widthwise in each segment, but do not slice through all the way. Sounds complicated or confusing? Check out this picture! The goal is to cut the eggplant into more manageable pieces, and slit them so it can be seasoned on the inside.

Asian eggplant for salad

Now is a good time to prepare a steamer. If you have a steamer, put about 2 inches of water in the bottom and start bringing it to a boil. If you do not have a steamer, try using a rack like this one set on top of a wide-mouthed pot with water at the bottom.

Mince 2-3 cloves of garlic for each eggplant. Generously season the inside of the eggplant with salt and minced garlic, make sure to get it inside the slits. If you have time, let this sit for 30 min. If not, simply place the seasoned eggplants in one layer on a plate, pop it into the steamer with boiling water for about 20 minutes.

Eggplants seasoned and stuffed with garlic
Eggplants seasoned and stuffed with garlic 

While the eggplants are steaming, prepare the salad dressing: mix together 3 parts Chinese black vinegar to 1 part soy sauce to 1/2 part sesame oil.

Once the eggplants are cooked, carefully remove them remove from the steamer, pour the dressing on top, and allow to cool to room temperature. This may be served at room temperature or chilled. Flavour improves with time, so I recommend putting it in the fridge for a an hour or so before garnishing with chopped cilantro and serving.

Asian eggplant salad
Asian eggplant salad 

The taste test: lots of garlic-y flavour permeates throughout the layers of the eggplant. Good balance of sour (vinegar), salty (soy sauce) and umami (sesame oil). Eggplant is of course the star here, it tastes slightly sweet and provides a perfect vessel to mop up the delicious dressing.

Asian Eggplant Salad
Serves 4

  • 3 Asian eggplants, washed and cut into 3 inch segments 
  • 1 tsp salt 
  • 9 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced 
  • 1 tbsp Chinese black vinegar 
  • 1 tsp soy sauce 
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil 
  • 3-4 sprigs cilantro, minced 
Method 

  1. Slit the eggplant widthwise, but do not cut down all the way 
  2. Fill a steamer with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil 
  3. Season inside the slits of the eggplant with salt and minced garlic 
  4. Place eggplants in a dish in a single layer and steam over medium heat for about 20 min or until tender 
  5. In a small bowl, mix together vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil 
  6. Pour dressing on top of the steamed eggplant, mix well 
  7. Allow to sit at room temperature or chill for about an hour to let the flavours marry 
  8. Garnish with minced cilantro and serve