Xueci Cheng

Editor at Kitchen Stories

The best way to shop? With the seasons. So, every 2 weeks at Kitchen Stories, we'll be highlighting a different in-season ingredient along with 5 new recipes. To the market, we go!

Just about any time you open my fridge, there’s always a Napa cabbage. It fulfills its mission in noodle or wonton soups, in many a spontaneous stir-fry, and of course, for weekend kimchi making. Like tofu, it’s one of the all-rounders in my cooking life. Whether you’re already a cabbage fan, or just purely devastated by the limited veggie choices before spring produce hits the market, if you haven’t tried Napa cabbage, now is the time.

Napa cabbage, aka Chinese cabbage, is from the Brassica rapa family and originates in Northern China. In China, as one of the most essential and accessible vegetables, Napa cabbage is known as (and called) the “king of all vegetables.” Napa cabbage is popular in Japan and Korea as well, and has become a staple vegetable in East Asian cuisine.

With ruffled leaves and succulent stems, this oblong-shaped cabbage has both crisp and tender textures. Compared to other kinds of cabbages, Napa is less pungent, and has a mild and slightly sweet taste. It is extremely low in calories, but rich in vitamins and packed full of antioxidants and folic acids. It is also good for digestion as it contains dietary fibers.

When, where, and how to buy Napa cabbage

Although Napa cabbage is available all-year around, it’s a cool-weather crop and reaches its peak season in the late fall and winter. Usually found in your average grocery store (of which I am very grateful for) and specialty Asian market, look for medium-sized cabbages with a dense head, firm stems and fresh light-green or yellow leaves, without any blemishes or black dots. A nice cabbage should feel heavy for its size.

If you see any black dots on a Napa cabbage, it could be the result of its growing environment or mold. Simply peel off and discard any affected leaves. Napa cabbage can last for a long time in a chilled environment. In leaner times, northern Chinese would hoard huge amounts of Napa cabbage to last through the whole winter.

Of course all good things must come to an end, so it will, eventually, wilt and develop mold with time, so carpe diem while it’s still fresh. Stored unwashed in the refrigerator, Napa is fresh up to a week. Wrapping in plastic wrap can help prevent wilting, and if a recipe calls for just part of a head, I would suggest just plucking the leaves from the outer layer instead of using a knife to chop it all at once.

How to deal with a big head of Napa cabbage

Often sold in large heads, preparing a chunky Napa cabbage requires a secure cutting board, sharp knife, and some patience. Start with chopping off the stem, half lengthwise. Use a small knife to make a V cut, and remove the core. Separate the leaves and rinse under cold running water or soak it in cold water for 10 minutes, to remove any dirt. Another method is to pluck all the leaves from the steam, clean, and stack them before chopping the stack. Napa cabbage is commonly chopped across the veins into bite-sized pieces or shredded for slaws.

One magic solution for left-over Napa cabbage is to turn it into magical kimchi. My killer recipe is from Maangchi, a Korean Youtuber and cookbook author. For less effort and quicker time to the table, we have a shortcut version linked below. Some Korean stews mix both fresh Napa cabbage and kimchi, highlighting the contrasting textures begotten from the very same vegetable.

Homemade shortcut kimchi

Homemade shortcut kimchi

→ Go to recipe

All the ways to enjoy Napa cabbage

Napa cabbage is versatile and works great stewed, steamed, and stir-fried. In general, it doesn’t need much cooking time to cook through (3 – 5 min. is typically enough), and is also delicious raw. Try swapping it out with white or savoy cabbage to get away with your salad and slaw routine. Give it a punchy and refreshingly sour taste with rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar, or add miso paste or tahini to the vinaigrette for a creamier variation. I use my hands to massage the vinegar or dressing into cabbage and let it sit for a few minutes, so the leaves can absorb the flavors.

A quick stir-fry gives it a nice caramelization while still retaining that crisp bite. Chop the cabbages into bite-sized pieces. Don’t overcook the leaves, just fry the thicker white ribs first for about 2 minutes, then add the leaves and fry another 2 minutes. Season with salt, or try my favorite classic sweet sour flavor: stir-fry 1 lb (500 g) cabbage with ½ tsp salt, 1 tbsp cornstarch, 1 tbsp sugar, and 1 tbsp dark rice vinegar.

Napa cabbage makes a humble component in soups or noodle dishes, making sure you get your vegetables in—plus, it adds some crunch. Its cup-like leaves can be used as wraps for grilled meat (Korean bulgogi) or stuffed cabbage rolls. Shredded Napa cabbage is often used in dumpling or bun fillings combined with ground pork or chicken, or can be combined with other shredded veggies and a quickly blitzed batter for Japanese-style pancakes.

What to make next?

All week long, we'll be featuring new Napa cabbage recipes on Kitchen Stories. Check back to see what's new, then try one for yourself! Here's where to start:

Stuffed Chinese cabbage rolls

Stuffed Chinese cabbage rolls

→ Go to recipe

Chicken katsu with sesame cabbage salad

Chicken katsu with sesame cabbage salad

→ Go to recipe

Colorful chiffonade salad

Colorful chiffonade salad

→ Go to recipe

Vegetable chow mein

Vegetable chow mein

→ Go to recipe

Okonomiyaki (Savory Japanese Napa cabbage pancake)

Okonomiyaki (Savory Japanese Napa cabbage pancake)

→ Go to recipe

More delicious ideas for you