Napa cabbage (Brassica rapa pekinensis) is a member of the cabbage family that originated in China several millennia ago. It is also known by the names Chinese cabbage, celery cabbage, and Peking cabbage. The plant grows in a compact, elongated head, with crinkled oblong leaves that are wrapped tightly in an upright cylinder. The leaves are light green, and the stalk area below the leaves is lighter still, a pale green approaching white.
The flavor of Napa cabbage is somewhat milder and a bit sweeter than that of regular green cabbage. It can be used raw or cooked, and the leaves can be substituted for regular cabbage in most recipes.
The Chinese have been growing this cabbage since around the 15th century, and it is still an extremely popular vegetable in China today, partly due to its versatility. In Korea, which has also been cultivating it for centuries, it is pickled, salted, and flavored with ginger and chili peppers to make kim chi, the national dish. Napa cabbage was introduced to North America from China toward the latter part of the 19th century, and it is cultivated in countries all over the world.
When selecting a head of Napa cabbage at the grocery store or farmstand, shoppers should look for compact ribs and intact leaves. It should have some heft in the hand. There should be no sign of yellowing or wilting, and no slimy or brown spots.
Unwashed, the cabbage will keep for about five to seven days in the vegetable crisper drawer of the refrigerator. It's best for cooks to keep the whole head sealed in a plastic bag and to not cut the leaves or ribs until they are to be used. Cut leaves begin to oxidize rapidly, and the cabbage will lose some of its vital nutrients and will spoil faster.
To prepare the vegetable, chefs can use a sharp knife to cut the head lengthwise in half. They should cut out and discard the core at the bottom center. The leaves can then be separated out and washed individually under cool running water to remove any dirt or small insects. They should be spun dry or patted with paper towels to remove water.
When shredded or finely sliced, Napa cabbage is often used to make an Asian-style coleslaw. Shredded leaves can also be added to a mixed green salad for a nice crunch and enhanced nutritional value. For an easy cold salad, cooks can whisk together 1 tablespoon (14.78 ml) sesame oil, 0.25 cup (60 ml) salad oil, 2 tablespoons (29.5 ml) rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon (about 13.8 g) brown sugar, 1 teaspoon (2 g) grated fresh ginger, and 1 teaspoon (4.9 ml) soy sauce. This can be poured over 4 cups (280 g) shredded cabbage, 1/2 cup (60 g) shredded carrots, and 1/4 cup (25 g) sliced green onions and tossed to coat. The salad can be garnished with toasted slivered almonds.
Whole leaves can be blanched briefly and stuffed, used to line a bamboo food steamer, or used to wrap fish before steaming. Shredded leaves are a healthy addition to stir-fries and vegetable soups.
A 1.25-cup (100 g) portion of shredded raw Napa cabbage contains less than 20 calories and has no fat or cholesterol and almost no sodium. It is a good source of fiber, vitamin C, folate, calcium, potassium, and manganese. Cabbage in general is thought to be loaded with compounds that may play a role in inhibiting certain forms of cancer development.