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Issue Eight / Entertaining Ideas,Recipes
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Recipe: Salt-Pickled Napa Cabbage

Recipe by Nancy Singleton Hachisu Photographs by Gentl & Hyers

Try Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s recipe for Salt-Pickled Napa Cabbage. 

Chinese cabbage (hakusai) and daikon are to Japanese winter as eggplant and cucumbers are to summer. If a farming family grows nothing else, they at least grow those two vegetables during their seasons. I can still picture my father-in-law out in the field tying up his heads of Chinese cabbages to prevent the leaves from spreading out loosely. The resulting pristine, white, juicy leaves and tight cylinder shape are necessary for making cabbage pickles, since the cabbages are sliced vertically and dried in quarter wedges.

I make my pickles the old-fashioned way—in cedar buckets with drop lids and covers. Plastic tubs are certainly easier to deal with in terms of possible mold formation, but there is a deep satisfaction in making the process work the traditional way. The cedar leaches a small amount of color into the pickles, but that was always inherent in the country pickles before the post-WWII modernization of Japan.

And even if you don’t achieve complete fermentation—you’re not just looking for the pickles to be salty, but also pleasantly sour—you will still end up with a gently salty, citrusy, slightly spicy little vegetable condiment that anyone will willingly and happily devour!!

8 small heads Chinese or napa cabbage (1 1/3 pounds / 600 grams each), quartered verticallypage68image13864
1/2 cup (about 1/3 pound / 140 grams) salt
8 small garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
8 small dried Japanese chili peppers or 6 árbol chilies
Zest from 4 small yuzu or Meyer lemons

Remove and discard any outer wilted leaves and dry the cabbage quarters for one day in a cool, dry place on sheets of newspaper set directly on the ground.

Line a plastic or wooden pickling tub with a large pickling-grade plastic bag. Rub each cabbage quarter with salt and pack one layer, cut sides down, on the bottom of the container. Sprinkle cabbage with some of the garlic, chilies and yuzu zest. Repeat the procedure with the remaining cabbage, salt, garlic, chilies and zest, making sure the cabbage is packed tightly.

Set the pickle tub’s drop lid on top (if you don’t have one, use a plate), weigh down with a rock or other heavy object (about the equivalent weight of the cabbage) and cover. Let sit outside in a cold, shady spot, out of direct sunlight, or in a cool, dry place (at about 40° to 50°F / 5° to 10°C), for a couple of weeks, checking after the first week to make sure enough brine has been exuded to cover the cabbage. If not, splash in a light 3 percent solution of salt water. If mold forms, lift it off the pickles gently and wipe any mold spots on the wooden tub with a neutral alcohol such as shochu or vodka.

Optimum flavor is reached after one month, but they may be eaten after one to two weeks of pickling. Pickles will keep for up to six weeks.

Note: Yuzu is an Asian citrus with uneven yellow or green skin. The aromatic fruit can be substituted with Meyer lemons.

Japanese chili peppers can be found at Asian markets and specialty stores. Árbol chilies are available in the Latin American aisle of many supermarkets and also at specialty stores.

Serves 6

Captivated by the world of sushi, Nancy Singleton Hachisu left California for Japan in 1988, intending to learn Japanese and return to the US. Instead, she fell in love with an organic farmer. Nancy is the author of Japanese Farm Food, a cookbook/memoir of life and food on their Japanese farm. 

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