Crispy, garlicky, spicy and very healthy. This simple recipe of Napa cabbage salad shows you how to make a Chinese style, flavour-packed hot oil dressing.
First of all, I’d like to tell you a true story. About eight or nine years ago, I was travelling from Beijing to Zurich on an airplane full of Chinese passengers. In the seat next to me was a middle-aged man who said he was a government official on a business trip to Switzerland.
When the air hostess serving dinner asked him whether he would like “Chicken or beef”, he answered, “Nothing!” A few minutes later he stood up and fetched a black leather briefcase from the overhead locker. “I come to Europe for meetings every two weeks. I’m so fed up with western food.” He murmured. Out of his briefcase he produced a head of raw Napa cabbage (aka Chinese cabbage) and a small jar of sweet soy bean sauce.
“This is what keeps me alive in Europe. Would you like some?” Astonished, I turned down his kind offer. But I couldn’t help observing him as he tore off a big leaf of Napa cabbage, dipped it into the thick, dark sauce and proceeded to chew quite loudly. You can imagine how juicy and crispy the leaf was…only a few hours since leaving Beijing, this man’s unusual in-flight meal made me very homesick.
This story may be a little extreme. However, I think it reflects how important Big White Vegetable (大白菜, literal translation of Napa cabbage) is for Chinese people. It used to be one of the few vegetables available on the dining table of families from Northern China (including the capital Beijing) during cold winter days.
Every November, people queued up for hours to buy piles of Napa cabbage for the next few months. A good home cook knew how to use different methods and different styles to produce a variety of meals using Napa cabbage. As China undergoes rapid modernisation, the tradition of storing Napa cabbage for the entire winter is fading away. However, our love for it doesn’t change.
Personally, I agree with the saying “One can never get tired of eating Napa cabbage (百吃不厌大白菜)“. Although it appears to be rather plain, it is actually a very interesting and versatile vegetable. It’s a great choice for a refreshing salad thanks to its crispy texture and peppery, sweet flavour.
With spicy and sour seasoning, it stands out as a stir-fried vegetable dish. When braised with meat or tofu, it absorbs all the flavours from the stock. Mixed with pork mince, it is no doubt the most popular filling for Northern-style dumplings. It can also be steamed and is particularly tasty as a wrapper for various meat. Pickled or fermented Napa cabbage gives an extra zing to many meat or fish dishes.
The Napa cabbage salad recipe I’m sharing here is as healthy as can be, no pre-made or bottled dressing involved. Just like the method used in making Chinese chilli oil, pouring hot oil at the right temperature onto garlic and other spices is the key to a flavour-packed dressing. If possible, I highly recommend that you grind Sichuan peppercorn yourself instead of using shop-bought Sichuan pepper powder. Skip chilli flakes if you don’t fancy spicy taste.
Napa cabbage is available all year round. It can stay fresh in the fridge for a couple of weeks (unwashed and wrapped tightly with cling-film). You can serve this salad as a starter in the western way or have it as part of a Chinese multi-dish meal. It’s great company for Sweet and Sour Fish or Red-cooked Pork Belly for example.
Napa Cabbage Salad with Hot Oil Dressing (油泼白菜)
For the vegetables
- ½ head Napa cabbage (aka Chinese cabbage), shredded, about 400g
- 1 handful shredded beet and baby leaf salad, optional
- Put all the vegetables in a salad bowl (see note 1)
- Place minced garlic, chilli flakes, ground Sichuan pepper and salt on top of the vegetables.
- Heat up the oil until it smokes. Remove the pan from the heat and leave for 10 seconds. Then pour it over the garlic and spices (see note 3)
- Add light soy sauce and black rice vinegar. Sprinkle sesame seeds. Mix thoroughly then serve.