There are many different types of Chinese cabbages. It's known by its scientific name Brassica Pekinensis, but the most common names associated with Chinese cabbage are Napa cabbage or Chinese leaves. The Chinese name is 白菜/大白菜.
Napa cabbage is a large-headed cabbage with firmly packed, pale green leaves that you will usually find next to bok choy in Western supermarkets. More healthy than Western cabbages, Napa cabbage is rich in Vitamin C and other nutrients. It is also a Yin food in Chinese cooking.
Napa cabbage has numerous health benefits and naturally occurring vitamins and minerals including:
- Napa cabbage is very low in calories.
- Napa cabbage contains many antioxidant plant compounds and is high in dietary fiber.
- Some scientific studies suggest consuming napa cabbage in a diet can help to protect the body from cancers and help to lower LDL levels.
- Napa cabbage is an incredible resource of folic acid and Vitamin B.
- Napa cabbage is high in Vitamin C.
- It’s also an amazing source for Vitamin K.
Cooking With and Shopping for Napa Cabbage
Napa cabbage is a very versatile ingredient to cook with. It can be eaten raw, quickly cooked like in a stir-fry, or cooked for a long time in a rich stew. Like tofu, Napa cabbage absorbs the flavors of the foods around it. That’s why a lot of Chinese people like to add Napa cabbage in their soups or cook in a hot pot. The tender sweetness of Napa cabbage will bring a sweetness to your soup. You can also eat it raw in salads and it’s often added to quick cooking stir-fries and steamed food. It can also be used as an edible kitchen "tool." If you are using a bamboo steamer, line the steamer with Napa cabbage leaves to help prevent the food from sticking to the steamer's bottom.
When selecting Napa cabbage, look for firm green leaves that are not wilted or eaten by bugs. The cabbage is large and should feel heavy for its size. Store the cabbage in a plastic bag in your refrigerator.
Cooking with Napa Cabbage
Napa cabbage is so versatile and quite popular in Chinese cuisine. It's a key ingredient in Chinese creamed cabbage. This is a rare type of recipe. Dairy products were rarely used in China, partly because of the high incidence of lactose intolerance among the East Asian population. This Northern court dish is a rare exception since it is dairy based. Traditionally it would be made with whole milk, but you’ll also find recipes using cream to give a creamier sauce.
Napa cabbage has a sweet flavor and is loaded with vitamins and minerals. Traditionally, sweet and sour cabbage is a spicy dish served cold, with the sauce mixture heated and poured over the vegetables and ginger just before serving.
Lion head Chinese meatballs is a classic dish that is often cooked with Chinese leaves/napa cabbage. The napa cabbage will absorb all the stock and tastes amazing. The Napa cabbage leaves are what gives the lion head meatballs their "mane."
Chinese cabbage can also be served raw, like in a salad or slaw. Simply chop the Napa cabbage into very thin strips and add in scallions, a chili, julienned carrots, or other vegetables. Top the mixture with a sauce of sesame oil, soy sauce, salt, and pepper. Stir it all together and serve cold. The idea is to julienne all the ingredients very thin so all the vegetables can absorb and mix well with the seasoning quickly. Make sure you eat this salad soon after serving otherwise the seasonings will make the Chinese cabbage soggy.