Pork 42: Napa Cabbage Hearts Braised with Ham (黃芽菜煨火腿)

“Take a good ham and peel off its skin, remove the fat and reserve the meat. First braise the skin in chicken broth until tender, then add the meat of the ham and braise it until tender. Cut the napa cabbage hearts with the stem into 2 inch long pieces. Add the cabbage along with honey and fresh rice wine to the ham, then braise for half a day.

The flavours of this dish are sweet and umami. While the meat and vegetables are very soft, the stem and leaves of the cabbage nevertheless hold their form. The flavours of the broth are incredible. This recipe comes from the Head Taoist at Chaotian Temple “

持牲單::黃芽菜煨火腿
用好火腿削下外皮,去油存肉。先用雞湯將皮煨酥,再將肉煨酥,放黃芽菜心,連根切段約二寸許長;加蜜、酒釀及水,連煨半日。上口甘鮮,肉菜俱化,而菜根及菜心,絲毫不散。湯亦美極。朝天宮道主法也。

The tender yellow heart of the napa cabbage is considered a delicacy by quite a few Chinese gastronomes. (Credit: Veganbaking.net)

Napa cabbage is usually known in Chinese as the “great white vegetable” (大白菜), though it is also sometimes referred to as the “yellow shoot vegetable” (黃芽菜). The former name refers to its general form of the vegetable in that it can grow quite large and much of each leaf is bright milky white in colour. The latter name refers to the preferred internal “heart” of the Napa cabbage, which is revealed after most of the tougher and green-tinged leaves of the head of cabbage has been pulled off.

When one is trying to cook something special with napa cabbage, one typically uses only its bright-yellow endive-shaped heart. The heart is not only incredibly tender but quite sweet in taste and an absolute joy to eat. When prepared for more formal dishes, the heart is cooked whole or sliced along it’s vertical axis with its stem intact at its base in order to keep the leaves of the cabbage heart together and hold its form.

Braising is the preferred method for cooking napa cabbage in Chinese cuisine. Unlike the European cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata), which start to stink badly if over-cooked, napa cabbage ( Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis) becomes sweeter and more delicious when braised for longer times. Still the half a day of braising for the cabbage in Yuan Mei’s recipe seems a little excessive since a good or 40 minutes of it would be more than enough to completely soften the napa hearts. I suppose it is partly a matter of taste since I know some of my aunts and uncles, and others from the previous generation, always preferred napa cabbage when cooked melt-in-the-mouth soft. Half a day of cooking would certainly render any vegetable into mud.

A more typical preparation of napa cabbage is Kaiyang napa cabbage (開陽白菜). The dish us usually made with the whole cabbage rather than just its heart. This is your home-style fare where the cabbage is braised in water or broth for around 10 minutes with umami providing ingredients such as shitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, dried flounder, and yes, dried ham too.

Of all the braised napa heart dishes, one of the most famous has to be the mundane sounding “napa cabbage in boiled water” (開水白菜). When served, this non-typical Szechuan dish looks exactly like what its name describes, basically, napa hearts in a tureen of clear water. However, the surprise comes when the soup is tasted. The “boiled water” is actually an exquisitely prepared consommé that is clear as water but rich and umami as a good Chinese superior broth (高湯). Despite its simple appearance, this dish is in fact one of the most flamboyantly wasteful and extravagant in all the Chinese cuisines. By the time you have sweated and prepared a tureen of this soup, you are left with a mountain of depleted remains from several chickens, ham, and egg whites used to create the broth, along with a large mound of outer napa cabbage leaves left over from extracting the heart.

If you ever decide to make this dish for your guest, make sure they are not raise on bouillon cubes and can appreciate the effort it takes to make it. Nixon was supposedly very impressed when served napa cabbage prepared thus in his famous visit to China. Whether he was gastronomically or “diplomatically” impressed is another topic altogether.

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2 thoughts on “Pork 42: Napa Cabbage Hearts Braised with Ham (黃芽菜煨火腿)”

  1. Hm… This is just nitpicking, but I’m wondering if “sweet and umami” is the best translation of “甘鲜.” The concept of umami didn’t exist until 1908 and I know that in Japanese, umami is written 旨味, but the Chinese decided to just use 鲜 because 旨味 already meant something else in Chinese. I think 鲜 in this recipe means more just like, “savory and delicious,” although of course that’s what umami means anyway, so… Never mind!

    1. It’s true that the word “umami” did not exist until the last century (and in English for the past decade), but the relatively similar concept had already existed in Chinese cuisine for a while as xian (鲜) thus I’m merely using the modern term. Savory could actually work as the translation of xian, but my feeling for this word is that it is more thick and dense, lacking the light-freshness that xian conveys. Thus I decided not to go with it. Gan (甘) means a slight not-quite-sweet pleasant taste, which is really difficult to find and analog in English. This is why I eventually conceded defeat and went with the less than adequate word “sweet”.

      A more thorough translation of ganxian (甘鲜) would be something more like “a slightly pleasant sweet flavour that is at once delicate , light, and savory”. Which roughly collapses to “umami and sweet”.

      Still, as you said it, all means “delicious” 🙂

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