Give wintry cabbage the Sichuan treatment

Sometimes eating seasonally means being creative with hardy vegetables, especially when there’s a foot of freshly-fallen snow out there to remind you it’s winter.

Dressing up hardy veg like cabbage doesn’t have to be hard work. Photos by Stacey DeWolfe


Even the word sounds prosaic. It’s that last syllable that really weighs things down: cabbage, baggage, roughage, leverage. These are not light words, nor is the meaning they convey, but there is something grounding in that heft, something rooted in the earth. Cabbage is one of the few vegetables that is hardy enough to survive the winter months relatively unscathed — the vegetable of good, honest, hard-working people. The vegetable that is international in its usage, if not its appeal.

But it is damn near impossible to make that cabbage look good, which is probably why it shows up so rarely on the menus of snazzy restaurants. Sure, a red cabbage compote will turn up here and there in a pool of dazzling ruby, but green cabbage is another matter entirely.

Perhaps that is why it is so often paired with colourful carrots, scallions and red peppers when presented in a slaw. And things become increasingly difficult when that cabbage is baked, boiled, pickled or sautéed into beige-ness. Sure, in the summer, a young, almost-neon-green cabbage will hold its colour even when cooked, but in the winter, you have to work with a colourful support team or dig up a plate or platter than can, in contrast, up the aesthetic ante.

Still, cabbage has much to recommend it: in addition to being full of vitamins and antioxidants, it lasts forever in the fridge, works well in a variety of cuisines, is nearly impossible to screw up, and is actually quite delicious when thoughtfully prepared.

Though I’m a fan of slaw, as those familiar with the column know well, I rarely eat cabbage in this guise. In fact, my favourite thing to do with cabbage in the summer is to slice it paper-thin and sautée it with garlic scapes, sesame oil and a little salt and pepper. Perfection.

In the winter months, it is delicious braised in large chunks with onions and apples and fresh thyme.

But my current obsession is a Sichuan dish I discovered a few months ago at the awesome Chinese restaurant KanBai and managed, with not too much difficulty, to replicate at home.

When you order this at KanBai or other Northern Chinese restaurants, the leaves are served whole, which makes for messy eating but also allows the flavour of the cabbage to hold up to the heat and intensity of the peppers. My only complaint about the dish, regardless of who is in charge of the kitchen, is that the leaves are often swimming in a pool of oil. After some experimentation, I have managed to cut the amount of oil used significantly without losing flavour and, as a result, have made a dish that is relatively healthy, if you don’t count the salt.


Because the dish is as delicious the next day, I always work with one half of the cabbage at a time, which makes enough for a two-person dinner and lunch the following day.

To start, simply remove the core and separate the head into leaves. Wash them well, and put them aside with the water still clinging to leaves.

Mince up a good pile of garlic — about four large cloves, or more if they’re small — and put them aside.

Then throw a heaping teaspoon of red or green Sichuan peppercorns into a spice grinder with about a teaspoon of dried red chilies and pulse it once or twice. You don’t want it to be a fine powder, but you want the peppercorns to break down. Once you have made the dish a few times, you can make decisions about how spicy you want it and adjust accordingly. You can also work with fresh peppers, but as I did not have any the first time I made it, I tend to use only dried.

When the peppers are mixed and ready to go, heat the wok and add about two tablespoons of neutral oil. When the oil is smoking hot, add the leaves and toss them until they are all coated.

This is not a dish that you can walk away from, as the leaves will burn quickly, and it only takes about three to four minutes to cook them through. So, while watching over the wok, toss the leaves from time to time so that as many of them come into contact with the hot surface of the pan as possible. This allows them to take on some colour and gives depth to the flavour. You can also add a splash of water and throw a lid on for a moment to let them steam. Then remove the lid and resume tossing.

When they begin to gain some transparency, but are not fully cooked, remove them from the wok and put aside. Then add another tablespoon or two of oil to the wok and dump in the minced garlic and the pepper mixture. It is never a bad idea to step back from the pan when adding peppercorns to hot oil, or to don safety glasses of some sort, as they do tend to splutter and pop.

Fry for a minute or two, or as long as you can take the heat before lapsing into a fit of coughing and sneezing. When this occurs, return the cabbage to the pan and toss until the leaves are coated with the garlic and peppers. Cook until the cabbage is no longer opaque and has lost its raw taste, and sprinkle liberally with salt — probably more than you think you will need. About a teaspoon should work, but add it slowly and taste often to ensure the perfect balance.

Though I cannot speak to the authenticity of this gesture, I often splash on a little sweetened rice vinegar at the end, and you could also add some sesame oil as well. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised at how incredibly addictive a plate of cabbage can be. 

Read more about Stacey’s culinary and other adventures on her website,, or follow her on Twitter @staceydewolfe.

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