Napa cabbage is one of the most recognisable vegetables in Asian cooking. You can find it fermented as kimchi in South 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.
The other theory holds that it came from the Japanese word nappa, which means "leaves of vegetables".
One reason napa cabbage is so popular is its versatility. It can be steamed, boiled, fried, braised or pickled - and that's one reason why 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 the vegetable comes out particularly large and sweet.
Traditionally, farmers would preserve excess cabbage from the harvest by soaking them in brine to make suancai. When the cabbage turned emerald green, it would be 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 21m-tall cabbage statue.
In Chinese, napa cabbage is known as baicai, or "white vegetable". When pronounced differently, baicai is also a different Chinese word that means "a hundred riches".
As a result, napa cabbage is considered a lucky charm in Chinese art.
In the 19th century, the cabbage was immortalised as a jade sculpture, a gift for a Qing Dynasty princess.
Today, that sculpture is considered one of the finest pieces of Chinese art, especially because the sculptor had to carve around the jade's imperfections to recreate the natural lines of a cabbage leaf.
Scientifically speaking, napa cabbage falls under the genus Brassica, which includes leafy greens such as 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.
This article was originally published on Goldthread . Follow Goldthread on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for more stories about Chinese culture.
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