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Wombok/Chinese cabbage

"There’s nothing offensive about a wombok – it’s the Norah Jones of the cabbage kingdom." Palisa Anderson - The Guardian

I bought my first ever Chinese cabbage/wombok the other day and now I'm wondering what to do with it. I mean it looks just like a longish cabbage, but it's Chinese, so maybe it tastes quite different and has to be treated quite differently.

I think I bought it because it was on a special and because I had seen Jamie cutting into one for one of his Carry on Cooking dishes. It was called Hungover noodles - well to be honest I'm not sure it was this recipe that I saw, but it will do as a demonstration of the kind of thing you can do. It was certainly from the series, but, I think, an earlier episode.

Anyway I tried looking for recipes and came to the conclusion in the end, that you could basically use it anywhere you used cabbage, but that it was mostly used in salads, stir fries and an Asian kind of soup. So I'm not really getting into recipes here.

What I found really interesting was that I could not actually find many recipes that specifically used Chinese cabbage in my most modern books. Also not in my oldish ones either. Not even Kylie Kwong or Luke Nguyen (OK I've only got one book each of theirs) had anything. Ditto for Yotam Ottolenghi - and yet, Jane Grigson maintains that Israel was the first country in the west to start growing it for export as well as home consumption. And she was writing way back in 1978. You would think it would be an Ottolenghi ingredient wouldn't you? Ditto for Nigel Slater who is a big Japanese food fan.

However, I turned to Jane Grigson, not with much hope I have to say, and found that she has a whole chapter on it in her Vegetable Book. And she was a bit of a fan, describing it as:

"such a fine column of pale crinkled greenness, striped with smooth white ribs that taste delicately of cabbage and celery combined. The texture is not tough, but lightly crunchy."

She gives good advice on how to choose the right one:

"No good choosing one with the edges of the leaves looking wilted or fawn-streaked. No good keeping it lying about in a warm kitchen either. Remember that it is a delicate relation of a the familiar cabbage and treat it tenderly. Never wash it before you need it."

And also how to prepare it:

"I separate the whole cabbage. This leaves me with a pile of thick stalked leaves, a second pile of tiny cabbages that sprout from the centre stem, and the thick stem itself. I cut the leafy part from the thick stalks of the first pile with scissors for a mixed green salad. The stalks themselves are sliced into convenient pieces and put with the the main stem, which is peeled and cut across; these are cooked and served with creamy sauce, or a hollandaise, as if they were seakale or asparagus. The pile of miniature Chinese leaves can be served in a jug like sticks of celery; or they can be braised and treated like whitloff chicory; or they can be cut up and used to make a crisper kind of salad than the leafy part I trimmed from the outer stalks. This kind of treatment is particularly suitable if you are feeding a small family."

And there she shows her age I think. I don't think I have seen a single suggestion for serving with creamy sauces and pretending it's asparagus, and Jamie just shredded his, stalk and all, for the dish I saw him prepare. Nevertheless Jane Grigson was obviously a woman ahead of her time.

As I said, I'm not going to give any recipes here - there are heaps to be found on the net, or, as I said earlier, just use as you would cabbage, although a word of warning from Jane Grigson -

"It is not a vegetable for careless cooking"

It's most trendy use these days though is for kimchi - or as one site (I think it was Saveur) put it:

"These vegetables scream “ferment me!” (into kimchi)."

Jamie Oliver has a recipe - shown at left, but there are lots more out there Charmaine Solomon had one too in her Encyclopedia of Asian Food, which had simpler ingredients, so I'll give it here if you want to have a try. Not sure whether I will. Far too much chilli for our household. Maybe if my wombok starts to look as if it's going off. I could always give it away as a present to foodie friends.

"1 large Chinese cabbage (about 1.5kg), coarse sea salt (not iodised), 2 tablespoons hot chilli powder, 6 large cloves garlic, finely chopped, 6 spring onions, finely chopped, 3 fresh red chillies, finely sliced, 1 tablespoon fine shreds of fresh ginger, 4 tablespoons fine shreds of white radish, 500ml dashi stock, 2 tablespoons Korean light soy sauce.

Trim root end off cabbage. Halve lengthways then cut each half into three equal strips. Sprinkle with handfuls of salt, put into an earthenware pot, cover with a wooden lid small enough to fit inside the pot and weight it down. Leave for 2 days and rinse with cold water. press out as much liquid as possible and cut into shorter lengths. Combine with the chilli, powder, garlic, spring onions, chillies, ginger and radish mixed together. pour dashi and soy sauce over, cover with wax paper and replace lid. Refrigerate for at least 4 days before eating."

Lots of chilli!

So there you go - Chinese cabbage - an economic bargain at the moment - you get several meals out of one cabbage - I only bought a half. Brassica rapa subspecies pekinensis and somebody said it's a hybrid of a turnip and pak choy. Very, very rich in vitamins and minerals and folic acid.

As I said, Jane Grigson was a woman ahead of her time, and one of the things she said in her piece on Chinese cabbage was

"Turning new foods to our own way is what the history of eating is all about."

To her that meant dousing it with hollandaise. Not sure what we would do today. It seems mostly to be just returning to its Chinese origins and stir frying or putting in Asian style salads. I have to say I'm really a tiny bit disappointed in my modern gurus. So go Jamie!

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