Napa cabbage is one of the most versatile ingredients in Asian cooking. You can find it in Korean kimchi, Thai larb, and Chinese soup. Clarissa Wei dives into the origins of this ubiquitous vegetable.
Napa cabbage is one of the most recognizable vegetables in Asian cooking. You can find it fermented as kimchi in Korea, wrapped around larb in Thailand, and served in warm broth in southern China.
The cabbage is the result of centuries of natural cross-breeding between two popular vegetables: the small green bok choy of southern China and the turnip of northern China.
It made its way to Korea in the 13th century, Southeast Asia in the 15th century, and finally to Japan in the 19th century.
There are two competing theories for why it’s called napa cabbage.
One says that the name refers to Napa Valley, where the vegetable was first grown commercially in the United States in the 1880s.
Another theory holds that it came from the Japanese word nappa, which means “leaves of vegetables.”
It’s a versatile vegetable
One of the most desirable qualities of napa cabbage is its versatility. It can be steamed, boiled, fried, braised, or pickled—and it’s one reason the vegetable can be found in nearly every grocery store in the world.
In China, the cabbage can grow all over the country, but it is especially beloved in the frigid northeastern provinces, where it comes out particularly large and sweet.
Traditionally, farmers would preserve their excess cabbage harvest by soaking them in brine to make suancai 酸菜. When the cabbage turns emerald green, it’s ladled out and chopped into tiny pieces. Suancai is often used to balance out fatty, meaty dishes.
In northern China, napa cabbage is so beloved that in 2018, one city built a 70-foot-tall cabbage statue.
It’s also lucky charm
In Chinese, napa cabbage is known as baicai 白菜, or “white vegetable.” The name sounds similar to another Chinese word baicai 百财, which translates to “a hundred riches.”
As a result, napa cabbage is also considered a lucky charm in Chinese art.
In the 19th century, the cabbage was immortalized as a jade sculpture, a gift for a Qing Dynasty princess.
Today, that sculpture is considered one of the finest pieces of Chinese art, no less because the sculptor had to carve around the jade’s imperfections to recreate the natural lines of a cabbage leaf.
(Read more: Where did the word ‘jade’ come from?)
Scientifically speaking, napa cabbage falls under a genus called Brassica, which includes leafy greens like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and kale. All of these different vegetables are the result of thousands of years of human cultivation and propagation.
In more temperate parts of the world, napa cabbage grows like a weed. Its wild counterpart can usually be distinguished by a cluster of yellow flowers on the top, which can sometimes be mistaken for wildflower blooms.