Napa cabbage can withstand long cooking. I like to use the whole leaves in hot pots or chaffing dishes.The longer it cooks, the softer and sweeter it becomes, like in 2 of the 3 napa cabbage soup recipes here.
The napa cabbage is known in Chinese as 北京白菜 (bei jing bai cai) or peking cabbage. So named because it was first found growing in Peking, the old name of Beijing, the current capital of China. It is also known as the celery cabbage and its scientific name is brassica pekinensis.
It should not be mistaken with the common green round cabbage, scientific name being Brassica oleracea. Celery cabbage or napa is cylindrical in shape with broad milky white stems and crinkly edged leaves.
The Chinese folk saying above extols the virtue of tofu and napa cabbage to keep us well. It is indeed one of the most popular vegetables in East Asia. It is absolutely indispensable in Korea. A key ingredient in the world renowned kim chi or pickled cabbage. The Koreans are so in love with kim chi that they even travel with jars of them.
Its value is justified. It is abundant in vitamin C and E. It contains loads of soluble fiber which aids bowel movements and digestion. It also lowers blood cholesterol and improves strength of blood vessels. All essentials for the winter season.
American scientists have also discovered an element in the vegetable that neutralizes the female hormone related to breast cancer. It is generally believed that frequent consumption can improve the skin, prevent breast cancer, and detoxify the body. It has also been touted to prevent piles and colon cancer.
Photo by Andreas
Many variations exist with cross breeding and improvements.
A recent popular variation is a dwarf. Known in mandarin as the "wa wa" cabbage 娃娃菜, which literally means baby cabbage. It looks like a miniature version of the napa cabbage. It is a result of careful breeding and is grown in the high mountains with minimum pollution. The wa wa cabbage is more expensive but highly nutritious and sweet.
I love wawa cabbage steamed whole and drizzled liberally with a sauce made from superior stock. Ok, I'm starting to drool.
baby napa cabbage or wawa cabbage
How to prepare napa cabbage
Choose cabbage with firm crunchy leaves, tightly packed. Avoid those with limp and spotty leaves. Napa cabbage keeps quite well. Wrap in newspapers and store in the refrigerator.
The leaves are tightly packed together and should be separated before cooking. Wash and soak to remove any dirt and soil.
The leaves are big so they are frequently chopped up before cooking. Most of the time, they are chopped into thin strips but they can also be cut into squares or irregular shapes for stir-fry. Alternatively, you can use individual leaves and make these steamed cabbage rolls.
Unless most green leafy vegetables, napa cabbage can withstand long cooking. I like to use the whole leaves in hot pots or chaffing dishes. The longer it cooks, the softer and sweeter it becomes. That's not saying that napa cannot be used in quick soups.
Cabbage leaves absorb flavours readily. Pair it with ingredients with strong flavours such as in a soup with duck breast or stir fry with dried ikan bilis.
Napa cabbage soup recipes
1. Napa cabbage soup for babies
Here's a simple cabbage soup recipe to start you off. This is a very basic recipe. Add additional ingredients as variations.
It is also a suitable soup recipe for a 4 to 8 month old baby. Use a stick blender to puree the vegetables into a puree for easy feeding.
1 leaf of napa cabbage
400cc water or vegetable soup stock
Rinse the cabbage leaf and onion and julienne
Wash, peel and cut the carrot into small pieces
Place the cabbage, onion and carrot into the water
Bring the water to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are really soft
2. Chinese mixed vegetable soup
This mixed vegetable soup dish pairs napa cabbage and bean thread noodles / mung bean noodles with an assortment of other ingredients. It is fondly known as chap chai in Singapore. Both ingredients are fairly cheap but bulky so this dish can go a long way. This is a recession-friendly recipe.
To enhance the flavour, sometimes I will add a small piece of fermented bean curd. Or substitute napa cabbage with the green round cabbage.
100g napa cabbage
150g bean thread noodles, soaked till softened
2 tbsp cooking oil
Wash the napa cabbage and cut into strips
Peel the carrot and slice thinly
Heat the cooking oil in a wok, add the napa cabbage and carrot
Fry the vegetables for 1 minute
Add the stock and the cellophane noodle
Bring back to a boil and simmer until the cabbage is soft and sweet
Add salt to taste
3. Mung bean vermicelli soup
This is a more elaborate recipe for vegetarian soup with bean thread noodles.
This is a hearty vegetarian soup recipe with carrot, bamboo shoot, cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, cloud ear and wood ear fungus and mung bean vermicelli.
Bean thread noodles with napa cabbage. Photo by Phoebe Lim
This soup is thickened with a little cornstarch mixture and the texture blends very well with the bean thread noodles. To enhance the flavour, sometimes I will add a small piece of fermented bean curd.
60ml cooking oil
30g cloud fungus
30g wood ear fungus
55g mung bean vermicelli
4 shiitake mushrooms
55g canned bamboo shoot
1 litre vegetable soup stock
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp water
1 tsp sesame seed oil
2 tbsp cornstarch powder
Soak the cloud ear fungus, wood ear fungus till soft and expanded. Drain and cut into thin strips
Soak the mung bean vermicelli in hot water to soften. Drain and leave aside
Wash and slice the shiitake mushrooms
Cut the cabbage into long strips, wash thoroughly
Wash the canned bamboo shoot and cut into thin strips
Wash and peel the carrot, cut into thin strips
Heat the oil in a wok
Add the cloud fungus, wood ear fungus, mung bean vermicelli, shitake mushrooms, cabbage, bamboo shoots and carrot
Stir fry for a while, add seasoning A
Mix well and add soup stock
Bring soup to a boil
Add the cornstarch mixture and stir continuously until soup thickens
What the heck is mung bean vermicelli?
The problem with trying to explain Chinese food in English is that sometimes there just aren't any equivalent. So, we resort to using direct word translation or borrowing somewhat similar terms from other languages.
Mung bean vermicelli and bean thread noodles are two such terms. In Chinese, it is known simply as 粉丝 (fen si) and 冬粉 (dang hun) in hokkien, a southern Chinese dialect.
Picture of bean threads. Photo by Phoebe Lim
It is basically thin round noodles made from ground mung beans. It is sold in its dried form. Perhaps its most famous use is in Vietnamese spring rolls.
I like mung bean vermicelli in hot soups, spring rolls and salads. Grandma likes to stir-fry it with mixed vegetables. It can be added to soups dried although it should be rinsed first. For spring rolls, salads and stir-frying, it needs to be parboiled to soften it first.