A ubiquitous winter sight at any supermarket or greengrocer in Japan is stacked heads of hakusai (literally “white vegetable”), also widely known as napa or Chinese cabbage. This versatile vegetable is used in so many dishes you would assume it has been around for a long time in Japan, but its history in the country is actually quite short. This is particularly notable since the name “napa cabbage” is actually thought to have come from another rather old-fashioned name for it in Japanese, nappa, which just means “leaf vegetable.”
Although the vegetable has been in use in China since at least the 11th century, it was only introduced to Japan in 1875 at a trade exhibition by a Chinese delegation. However, attempts to grow the cabbage domestically yielded warped plants, forcing Japan to continuously import seeds, curtailing widespread domestic adoption of the vegetable at the time.
Decades later, Kichibe Numakura, a teacher at the Miyagi Prefectural Agricultural High School, discovered that native bees were cross-pollinating the cabbage flowers with other brassicas, such as turnips and rapeseed plants, unintentionally producing hybrids. He was able to develop a variety that bees didn’t cross-pollinate, which made it possible to grow the vegetable widely in Japan.
The napa cabbage truly came into its own in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when a wholesaler from what is now part of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, sent trainloads of the vegetable to the devastated Tokyo area. Previously, a green brassica called mishimakawana had been the main leafy vegetable used by people in Kanto for winter pickling. Afterwards, the mishimakawana, along with the small farms and homesteads that grew it, almost disappeared, and the napa cabbage became king, especially after the introduction of varieties that stood up well to long-distance shipping.
These days, the napa cabbage is firmly associated with both traditional washoku dishes as well as ones of Chinese origin. It’s a must for nabe (hot pot) and is great in stir-fries and soups, too. It’s also one of the easiest vegetables to pickle at home to incorporate gut-friendly fermentation to your diet.
This recipe is for classic hakusaizuke (salt-pickled napa cabbage), but instead of packing a ton of it into an old-school earthenware pickling container, this method uses a sturdy plastic bag to make a quantity that’s much more practical for 21st-century households. For a two-adult household, this amount lasts about three to four weeks. I prefer to keep it very simple and fresh, but you can also add things like yuzu citrus peel during the pickling process, too.
Recipe: How to make Japanese pickled napa cabbage (hakusaizuke)
Makes enough for several meals as a side dish
Prep: 15 mins., pickling: 5 to 10 days, or longer
A large flat sieve or a rack
A large sturdy plastic bag
A tray that’s as large or larger than the plastic bag
Weights such as bags of flour, cans, etc.
For the pickles:
2 kilograms napa cabbage
60 grams salt (3% of the total weight of the napa cabbage)
20 grams dried konbu seaweed (several pieces, this doesn’t have to be precise)
2-4 small dried red chili peppers
Shredded mitsuba (Japanese parsley) or green shiso (perilla) leaves, optional
1. Remove any ragged outer leaves from the cabbage. Weigh the cabbage and note the number down — the amount of salt you will need, as well as the necessary weights, are calculated from this. Wash the cabbage.
2. Make a deep criss-cross cut into the stem end, and pull the cabbage apart lengthwise into four to six pieces.
3. Place the split cabbage wedges on a large sieve or a rack and leave to dry for several hours. If the weather is fine do this outside in the sun, otherwise dry them in a well-ventilated place indoors.
4. Weigh out your salt — it should be 3% of the original weight of the cabbage. Sprinkle the salt in between the leaves of the cabbage, putting slightly more into the root ends, reserving about ⅕ of the salt for later. Place the salted cabbage pieces in a large, sturdy plastic bag.
5. Make sure the cabbage pieces lay flat, and close the bag securely. (If you’re worried about leakage, you can also double-bag.) Put a tray on top of the bag, and weigh it down with twice the weight of the cabbage — so if you originally had 2 kilograms of cabbage, you’ll need 4 kilograms of weights. Bags of flour and sugar work well for this. Leave the cabbage for one to two days at room temperature, flipping the bag over a couple of times.
6. After a few days, a lot of water will have pooled up in the bag. Open the bag and discard the liquid, then add the rest of the salt to the cabbage evenly. Add the dried chili peppers and the konbu seaweed. Close the bag up securely again, and weigh down with ½ the original weight of the cabbage — if you had 2 kilograms of cabbage, use 1 kilogram of weights. Leave the cabbage at room temperature for at least another three to four days, tasting daily. The longer it’s allowed to ferment, the more mellow it will become, and the saltiness will become muted.
7. When the cabbage has achieved your desired flavor, transfer it to the refrigerator (you can keep it in the pickling bag or put it in another container), where it will keep for a month or so. Serve the drained, pickled cabbage cut into pieces, optionally with a little of the konbu seaweed shredded finely, plus a tiny bit of the chili pepper and shredded mitsuba or shiso leaves. If you find the cabbage too sour to eat plain, don’t worry: You can always use it in soups and stir-fries.
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