Recipes abound for the chilled and tangy white cabbage pickle that northern Chinese so enjoy, the Chinese relative of the well-known Korean kim-chee. This one is unique for using only the very crisp ribs and core of the cabbage. Its distinctive taste comes from the combination of numbing Szechwan peppercorns and spicy fresh ginger, and its unusual texture is a result of the way the cabbage is cut.
Cut a thin slice off the very bottom of the cabbage, so that the base is clean and white. Discard this first slice and any wilted leaves. Make your next slice ½–¾ inch farther up the base, reserving the thick disk and arranging the freed leaves in a neat pile. Continue slicing off a thick base disk and stacking the leaves until you reach the cabbage core or heart.
Cut the heart into 1-inch pieces. Leave any tiny cabbages intact. Cut the base disks into wedges or coins, as described in TECHNIQUE NOTES above. Starting with the innermost leaves, trim away any flaccid edges and cut the crisp white ribs crosswise into bands a scant 1 inch thick and 1½–2 inches long. Cut until you have ¾ pound base, heart, and rib pieces. Bag the outer leaves and trim for use in other dishes.
Put the cut cabbage in a glass or stainless bowl. Sprinkle with salt, toss well to mix, then cover and let stand 6 hours or overnight at room temperature, tossing occasionally. If you wish to hold the cabbage a bit longer before cooking, refrigerate after several hours to retard the salting process.
Drain the salting liquid, then rinse the cabbage briefly with cold water. Squeeze the cabbage gently between clasped palms, a handful at a time, to remove excess water. Press; do not wring. The cabbage should still be firm and moist when you are done. Put the cabbage and the stir-frying ingredients within reach of your stovetop.
Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil, swirl to coat, then reduce the heat to low and add 1 peppercorn to the pan. When it begins to sizzle, add the remaining peppercorns, the ginger, and chili flakes, adjusting the heat so they sizzle without scorching. (If they burn, wipe the pan clean and begin again with fresh ingredients.) Stir the mixture until fully fragrant, about 10 seconds, then add the cabbage to the pan and stir briskly to combine, fluffing the cabbage to separate it as you stir. Add the soy, sugar, and vinegar, and stir until the mixture is blended and the liquids are hot, 1–2 minutes. Taste the liquid for the desired blend of sweet and spicy, adjust if necessary, then scrape the mixture into a glass or stainless bowl. Let cool, stirring occasionally.
For best flavor, chill 24 hours before serving. Serve well chilled, in a shallow bowl of contrasting color to show off the pretty white-gold of the cabbage or in individual dip dishes alongside each place setting. Gloss the cabbage with a bit of juice, and arrange a peppercorn or several chili flakes on top as an accent.
The cabbage keeps well, tightly sealed and refrigerated in an immaculately clean jar, for about one week. Flavor peaks in spiciness on the second day.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.