Between the Rows: Do you know your cabbages?
National Garden Bureau photo
The cabbage most of us are more familiar with.
National Garden Bureau photo
Image courtesy of Pat Leuchtman
A delivery of cabbage in China. I took this picture in the fall of 1989 in Beijing.
Cabbage. Such an ordinary vegetable. We don’t give it much thought. We shred it into a salad, dress it into coleslaw, or boil it up with corned beef. But, there are many types of cabbage in the world and many ways of serving it up.
I began thinking about cabbage this week when, while sorting through some old photographs, my husband and I found a few shots of the ai guo bai cai harvest in Beijing in the fall of 1989. I had been working at Women of China Magazine since April, but every day still brought new understandings of daily life. That was a time before “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” took hold. At that time the government controlled the farms, the stores, workplaces and housing. In 1989, there was a huge cabbage crop. What is grown must be eaten, or at least sold. Therefore, the government decreed that every household must buy 40 kilograms (more than 80 pounds) of bai cai, Chinese cabbage to us.
Trucks brought the cabbage into the city from outlying farms. Then, blue-suited, white-capped workers, often women, unloaded the cabbage on street corners and in front of the state stores. Every night the TV news talked about the sale of ai guo bai cai, literally “love country” cabbage, or patriotic cabbage.
Chinese cabbage, as most of us know, is not like the hard green heads that keep well and are so familiar in sauerkraut and coleslaw. Chinese cabbage has looser, more elongated heads. It is not a cabbage that Chinese workers enjoyed stacking up in the hallways of their cold Beijing apartments. Nor did they enjoy eating their way through all that cabbage. I should note at this point that Beijing is a desert city. It is very dry. Also, Chinese apartments at the time were very cold in the winter. Even though these cabbages are not the storage cabbages that we are familiar with, they kept fairly well. The outer leaves would dry out and protect the inner leaves. They would be removed when it was time to prepare the fresh inner leaves for cooking.
On the rare occasions when I worked a full day in the office with my colleagues, I got to see the lunches that were provided by the work unit canteen. Workers brought their own metal bowls, which they carried downstairs to be filled with a big helping of rice topped with some vegetable. That fall, the rice was topped with watery cabbage. This sort of meal was not considered suitable for a foreigner, so I was sent down the street to eat at the newly opened McDonald’s.
Barrel-headed Chinese cabbage and other Asian greens like pak choi and tatsoi have become more popular and more common in the U.S. since we were in Beijing so long ago. Catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds and the Kitazawa Seed Co. offer a range of Chinese cabbage and other Asian greens.
All cabbages — Chinese and American — are cool-weather crops. You can plant early in the spring for summer eating and then plant in mid-summer for fall storage. They are all heavy feeders and need a fertile, humusy soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7. Regular, even waterings are essential for good cabbage development. Cabbages are susceptible to club root and bacterial soft root disease, soil-borne diseases. This means you should rotate your cabbage beds with non-brassicas — brassicas are a group of plants that includes cabbages and mustard plants — in a five- or six-year rotation. Also, look for disease resistant seeds. Bilko, a 12-inch tall, dark green Chinese cabbage from Johnny’s is resistant to both club root and fusarium yellows.
You are more likely to find cabbage starts of the more familiar greed and red cabbages at garden centers in the spring, but seeds are available for many Asian greens that can be ready to harvest in as little as three weeks.
The Kitizawa catalog lists 21 varieties of pak choi. Some have the typical dark green leaves with crisp white stems, others have reddish, or yellow-green leaves. They have a slight mustardy flavor and are used in many Chinese dishes from soup to noodle dishes to stir-fries. The Chinese also pickle the coarser leaves. Pickling is an important and traditional method of food preservation in China.
We are very aware of the changes in China since we were there, but at the time it was unheard of for vegetables to be eaten raw. We assume this was a cultural habit because the Chinese traditionally used “night soil” or cleanings from outhouses and such as fertilizer on farms. Even in 1989, we occasionally saw a man on a bicycle hauling his “honey pots” filled with night soil from the city out to the nearby farms.
Locally, we can buy Asian greens like mizuna, tatsoi, and komatsuna, which are often used in salad mixes, but can also be grown for another couple of weeks for cooking. Pak choi seeds are including in the Botanical Interests Seeds Savory Mix of microgreens that I have growing in our guest room. More on that another day.
Cabbage is a nutritious vegetable that provides a big helping of vitamins, minerals and fiber. I cannot speak to the value of the cabbage boiled up the way I saw it served from the Women of China canteen, but I can say that growing cabbage, Chinese or American, and gently cooking it will give us all a big nutritional boost.
Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.