Is Chinese Leaf a cabbage or a lettuce, and what should you do with it?

“‘I want plant Chinese cabbages, some water lily, some plum tree, and maybe some bamboos, and maybe some Chinese chives as well…’

I immediately image picture of tradition Chinese garden”

Xiaolu Guo, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Walking into my local, small supermarket I found that everything on the vegetable counter looked not just tired, but absolutely exhausted…out for the count as it were. Only one item was left standing, and that item looked suspiciously uninteresting from the taste point of view. But, needs must…. I bought it.

The next challenge was to establish what it was, and what to do with it. My suspicions were confirmed – Chinese Leaf doesn’t have much flavour. But it does have some redeeming characteristics. This is what I found out.

What is Chinese Leaf – is it a cabbage or a lettuce?

Chinese Leaf is a type of brassica. Its botanical name is Brassica Rapa – Pekinensis group. It’s also known as Chinese, napa, or celery cabbage, or wombok. It is not a cabbage, which comes from the Brassica Oleracea family – a large family also comprising Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kohlrabi, and collard greens. Chinese Leaf’s brothers and sisters are bok choi, tatsoi, turnip and rapini (Cima di rapa).

It doesn’t have much flavour – it’s raison d’être is the texture it can provide, and the fact that it can provide a vehicle for other flavours.

Types of Chinese leaf

There’s a firm-headed (like mine, above and below) and a looser-headed type. Of the firm-headed type there is a long, cylindrical type (like mine), or a shorter, stouter, more barrel-shaped type (known as a napa or nappa cabbage).

How do you prepare Chinese Leaf?

Cut off the base, wash the leaves in cold water and dry them. Shred or tear to the desired size and shape.

Raw or cooked?

You can eat the Chinese Leaf raw (to hold a dip for example, or in a salad); or alternatively, shred and stir fry briefly, or add to hot food – for example a pilaf – just before serving. Don’t cook (you can stir-fry or steam) for longer than a couple of minutes or it will lose its crunchy texture.

More ideas for what to do with Chinese cabbage

  • It works well, added at the last minute to ordinary stir-fried cabbage.
  • It goes well with anything coated with a sweet and sour sauce.
  • Put it in tacos.
  • Mix, raw, with radishes, carrots, spring onions, black sesame seeds, and mayonnaise to make a sort of coleslaw.
  • In a stir-fry it goes well, added at the last minute, with pak choi and bean sprouts.
  • Add to pilafs at the last minute.
  • Dress with a soy dressing and serve with salmon.
  • It’s commonly used in a malatang soup, go to Audrey Bourget’s excellent article for more on that.
  • It’s quite good, I understand, steamed. But see Ron Flynn’s comment below. One of the main delightful characteristics of the Chinese cabbage is its crisp erectness – why turn it flabby by going to the trouble of steaming?
  • you can make a simple soup with it: Ken Hom’s version uses Sichuan preserved vegetables; this All Recipes one just uses chicken stock and ginger.

When is it available?

It’s a cool season vegetable, and if you are growing your own (it’s simple to grow), you’ll be able to harvest it from July to October. However, it’s available in supermarkets all year around. Choose ones which look packed and heavy. Little black flecks are normal and harmless, but you can rub them off with a fingernail.

How long will it keep?

It will keep in the fridge, wrapped in clingfilm, or in a plastic bag, for two or three weeks.

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Jane Adaeze Obinnah

My new favourite veggie…great replacement for cabbage in a salad

Ron Flynn

good heavens, to cook chinese leaf is a sin, I eat it like lettuce as in a salad its gorgeous indeed. and goes hand in glove with all other salad plants.

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