Last weekend at Hamilton Farmers’ Market, Richard Cato of Pirongia Mountain Vegetables handed me a couple of big, pale green and white, cylinder-shaped Asian cabbages.
“What are your favourite recipes for these?” he asked.
This kind of Asian cabbage makes great salads. And kimchi.
I know what to do with it. But I realized that I wasn’t sure what to call it.
“Wong bok” was the first name that came to mind. But when I checked the spelling, I discovered that there are a huge number of names for this vegetable, worldwide.
Many names, one cabbage
In New Zealand it’s often called won bok or wong bok. In Australia it’s wombok. In Japan it’s hakusai. Some other names are petsai, celery cabbage, napa cabbage and siu choy. In England it’s called Chinese leaf, or winter cabbage.
According to Palisa Anderson in The Guardian, what you call it depends on the geography and language of the people who first introduced this vegetable to your part of the world. Palisa calls it the “Norah Jones of the cabbage kingdom”. I don’t think that’s fair to either Norah Jones or this excellent vegetable!
“Chinese cabbage” is a common term for a number of different brassicas that are popular in East Asian cuisines. I prefer “Asian cabbage”, but even that is pretty general.
They all belong to the Brassica genus, but beyond that, the Latin names see to be quite variable.
Kings Seeds currently have seeds for two plants that both look like this vegetable. One is Brassica chinensis and one is Brassica rapa. They also have an heirloom tat soi (another Asian brassica), which is also Brassica chinensis. And a “Chinese leaf cabbage”, Brassica campestris. And pak choi variants (these are the ones with long white fibrous stems and green leaves) are also listed as Brassica chinensis and Brassica rapa.
Mizuna, mibuna and mustard greens (Brassica japonica, Brassica rapa, Brassica juncea) are closely related. They have different flavours, colours and textures.
I’m particularly fond of the big cylindrical wong bok. I appreciate its crunchy texture and mild flavour.
This kind of cabbage has been grown at least since the fifteenth century in the Yangtse River region. It’s said to be the most commonly grown vegetable in China.
Growing wong bok
I can’t claim to be an expert in growing wong bok. It’s a big favourite with all the pests in my garden, like slugs, snails and cabbage caterpillars. However, if the plant survives to grow to full size, often the outside of the cabbage head will be full of holes and bite marks, but the inside will be fine.
When you’re making kimchi (see the recipe later in this post), it doesn’t matter that the leaves are a bit ragged.
Wong bok is traditionally a cool season annual crop, but more recent cultivars tolerate different climate conditions. It grows best in autumn, winter and spring in the Waikato. In summer it will start flowering, and becomes bitter.
It grows well in sandy loam with high organic matter and plenty of water.
I’d rather leave growing wong bok to the experts. At the farmers’ market, I’ve found wong bok on the Pirongia Mountain Vegetables stall and on the Suncakes Gardens stall. It’s in Asian vegetable shops, but it’s not usually found at mainstream supermarkets.
What to do with wong bok
Here are my favourite ways to use this superb vegetable.
It’s great value for money, because it’s so big – anything from 1kg to 2kg. A family of four could live on one of these for a few days.
Salads and pickles are my first choice for recipes. It’s also good in Asian-style stir-fries and soups.
But I think it’s such a great salad green that I hardly ever get around to cooking it.
It keeps well in the vegetable drawer of the fridge for a week or so. (But it takes up a lot of space!)
Before using it, wash the leaves carefully and make sure there are no caterpillars or slugs.
Crunchy salad with mushrooms
This is my absolute favourite wong bok salad.
The crunchy leaves and the soft marinated mushrooms are a superb combination.
This recipe comes from a family friend, Yvonne Houlder, of Aberystwyth, Wales. Yvonne, who died in 2020, was an inspirational cook.
The mushroom and cabbage proportions are just a guide. You could use fewer mushrooms.
Ohaupo mushroom growers Quality Mushrooms produce superb certified organic mushrooms. The taste and texture are wonderful and worth the premium price. They’re almost as good as freshly picked field mushrooms, which I hardly ever get because I’m not an early riser. I’ve bought these mushrooms from the Alexander Organics farm shop at Te Miro.
This recipe is plenty for four people
300g mushrooms, sliced thinly (about 4 cups)
A similar quantity of wong bok, sliced thinly
Mustardy vinaigrette dressing:
Combine these ingredients in a jar and mix well:
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
A pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the mushrooms in a salad bowl.
Pour over enough dressing so that the mushrooms are completely coated in dressing. You might not need to use all the dressing.
Mix gently to combine.
Leave the mushrooms for half an hour to marinate in the dressing. They will get soft.
Add more dressing if the mushrooms look too dry.
Just before serving, add the finely sliced Asian cabbage and combine with the mushrooms.
Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper to taste.
Waldorf fusion salad
Crunchy wong bok replaces the celery that’s in conventional Waldorf salad recipes. I like to include a few finely sliced bitter greens to round out the flavour.
4 cups of finely sliced wong bok cabbage – cut strips approximately 0.5cm thick
A couple of leaves of chicory or curly endive, finely sliced
1 medium sized apple, cut into small chunks and sprinkled with lemon juice so it doesn’t go brown
½ cup walnut pieces, toasted and roughly broken up
Mayonnaise – either home-made or American-style, e.g. Best Foods
Place the leafy ingredients and apple in a salad bowl and combine.
Add enough mayonnaise to coat the salad.
Sprinkle the walnut pieces over the top and combine gently.
Wong bok makes great coleslaw. It doesn’t need to be shredded as finely as European cabbage, because it’s milder and crunchier.
4 cups of finely sliced Asian cabbage, strips approximately 0.5cm thick
1 spring onion, finely sliced
Half a cucumber, cut into quarters and then into small chunks
A red capsicum, seeded and sliced into strips
A couple of leaves of chicory, curly endive or spring dandelion leaves, finely sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped coriander leaves
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted in a heavy frying pan and left to cool
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, or lime juice
½ teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste
Place all the vegetables in a salad bowl.
Pour the dressing over, and mix gently to combine.
Sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds over the top before serving.
Wong bok is the main ingredient of kimchi, the famous Korean pickle.
If you love garlic, ginger and chilli, you’ll love kimchi.
Making kimchi is a way to use up one large wong bok very quickly. You might even need to buy more.
Goodbugs make a great kimchi. You can find it at the Waikato Farmers’ markets or order it online via their website.
Here’s a basic kimchi recipe.
It’s based on a recipe in Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz, one of my favourite books.
500g wong bok cabbage (Sandor calls it napa), coarsely chopped
1 small daikon radish or a few red radishes, sliced
1 or 2 carrots, sliced
1 or 2 onions, finely chopped
3 or 4 cloves of garlic (or more), finely chopped
3 or 4 hot red chillies (or more), chopped and with seeds removed
3 tablespoons fresh grated ginger root.
Make a brine by combining 1 litre water and 4 tablespoons salt. Stir well to dissolve the salt.
Place the chopped vegetables in the brine.
Cover with a plate or a weight to keep the vegetables submerged.
Leave to soak for a few hours or overnight.
Drain the brine off the vegetables. Keep some of the brine.
Taste for saltiness. If it’s too salty, rinse the vegetables. If you can’t taste the salt, add more salt.
Combine the garlic, onions, ginger and chillies and mix into a rough paste.
Mix together the vegetables and the garlic-onion-chilli-ginger paste.
Stuff the mixture into a clean 1 litre glass jar. Pack the jar tightly, pressing down until the brine rises.
If necessary, add a little of the reserved brine.
Weight the vegetables down with a smaller glass jar filled with water.
Cover with a cloth to stop insects from getting in.
Leave to ferment in your kitchen or another warm place.
Taste the kimchi every day to see how it’s going. If it starts drying out, add more brine so the vegetables are always covered.
After about a week of fermentation, move the kimchi to the fridge.
I think wong book could also be used to make European-style sauerkraut.
I haven’t tried this, but I’m planning to. Here’s a post with my sauerkraut recipe.
Here’s my post about mizuna, another Asian-style brassica.