Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Unassuming Stir-Fried Cabbage...

How could something so simple taste so good?

This is the case for cabbage stir-fried with Szechuan chilies and Szechuan peppercorns. I had first tried this dish with a wonderful friend of mine Eve at a Northern Chinese restaurant in Scarborough. She's been introducing me to a host of Northern-style Chinese dishes, and I am forever grateful because I would have overlooked so many incredible restaurant and menu options. It was this one particular dish upon taking that first bite, had me hooked and almost finishing the large portion by myself. I would have never ordered what seemed to be such a typical and boring dish. It was served in a small hot wok over a burner at the table. And as it continued to heat and sizzle, the aromatics and flavour became more intense and insanely delicious! As I was devouring and savouring, I was trying to break the flavouring down- Szechuan chilies and peppercorns for the tongue-numbing spicy sensation and lemony overtones, sliced garlic for the aromatics and sweetness, all doused and sizzling in a mouth-watering oil-slicked brown sauce of some sort.  It took me a couple more times ordering it on other occasions as it became Eve and Susan's it spot that I came to decipher the components of the sauce. The magic aside from the spices was black vinegar! It dawned on me when I realized just how much black vinegar was used in Szechuan dishes for its savoury, tart but sweet flavour. I just knew I had to experiment at home, and now it shows up regularly as a quick-to-make vegetable dish in my Chinese dinners. I tone down the chilies to make it palatable for my older boys.

Here is the version I cook at home:

Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage with Dried Shrimp

1 Tbsp. peanut oil (I prefer using peanut in Chinese cooking for it's nutty taste)
2 Szechuan chilies
1 tsp. Szechuan peppercorns
2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped garlic
1/2 -1 lb. Taiwanese cabbage, cut into 2-inch thick strips (I like this type for it's sweet, tender leaves)
2 Tbsp. dried shrimps, soaked in 1/4 cup water for 1 hour
2 Tbsp. Chinese cooking wine
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tsp. soy sauce

Szechuan chilies are also known as Facing Heaven Pepper because the fruit grows upwards instead of down. Szechuan peppercorns are also known as prickly ash. Despite it's name, it not related to either the black pepper or chili pepper. 


1) Heat a large wok or pan over high heat until it is very hot. Add the oil, then chilies and peppercorns. Stir until slightly smoking, and add the garlic to cook for 30 seconds. Then add the cabbage and stir-fry for two minutes.  

2) Add the dried shrimp and 2 Tbsp. of its water and cook for five minutes.

3) Next, add the cooking wine and sugar, stir in the black vinegar and soy sauce. Continue to cook for eight to ten minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Serve immediately.

Cabbage has been known for ages as cheap, food for the poor. Despite its humble roots, they are high in vitamin C and dietary fibre. Taking something seemingly boring and making it exciting so simply, is just magical. I take my hat off to you cabbage for showing me that ordinary can be truly extraordinary!

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