Chinese cabbage

Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut in a white bowl with a silver serving spoon.

Sauerkraut, which means “sour cabbage” in German has been consumed for generations in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Although sauerkraut is often thought to be of German or Eastern European descent, this popular preserved cabbage and the process of vegetable fermentation itself are actually theorized to be of Chinese origin.

The Chinese fermented Chinese cabbage (also known as “napa cabbage”) with rice wine and the resulting sour cabbage was known as “suan cai” 酸菜 which literally translates into “sour vegetable”. The earliest known history of sauerkraut dates back 2,000 years ago, about the same time the Great Wall of China was being built; Chinese laborers consumed rice together with suan cai and various other pickled vegetables.

Genghis Khan introduced the fermented cabbage dish to Europe about a 1,000 years later. The Germans, called it “sauerkraut” (which literally translates into “sour cabbage” in German)  and adapted the recipe to use locally available green cabbage (instead of Chinese cabbage), resulting in the sauerkraut popularly known today.

Prized by the ancient Romans for its taste and healthful properties, large quantites of the sour cabbage were carried by Roman troops in barrels during long journeys and were consumed in an effort to ward off intestinal infections.

Christopher Columbus nourished his sailors with sauerkraut to build their immunity against scurvy and other diseases.

The freshest possible green cabbage, good quality salt and the right quantity of salt are imperative to produce quality sauerkraut. Table salt and salt with any additives such as anti-caking agents are not recommended as they may affect the fermentation process. The quantity of salt should be mixed with the cabbage at a ratio of about 1.5% to 2.5% of the weight of cabbage. A ratio higher than that could stunt the fermentation process as the lactic-acid bacteria are unable to survive. One tablespoon of salt per two pounds of cabbage is a good rule of thumb.

Fresh cabbage heads are first shredded, mixed with salt and then squeezed by hand to release the juices in the cabbage which contain fermentable sugars and other nutrients that encourage microbial activity. The kneaded cabbage is then transferred to a crock, (traditionally stoneware fermentation crocks were used) and allowed to ferment undisturbed.

As the cabbage ferments, lactic acid-producing bacteria (LABs), primarily Lactobacilli, produce lactic acid along with other acids and a combination of gases (principally carbon dioxide). It is this acidity that serves as a preservative, helping to control the growth of harmful organisms which lead to food spoilage.

LABs thrive in anaerobic environments i.e., environments with no oxygen. For this reason, it is imperative to minimize oxygen exposure to the shredded cabbage; oxygen exposure affects the fermentation process and could result in the growth of harmful mold and yeast. Brine is an anaerobic environment, and ensuring the cabbage is submerged in brine at all times helps to avoid such undesirable outcomes. Do not stir the brine as this introduces oxygen.
Traditionally, water-sealed fermentation crocks were used to make sauerkraut and the water seal gives these crocks an advantage over modern day mason jars; the water seal prevents oxygen from entering the crock while allowing the carbon dioxide gases to bubble out.

Temperature control is a very important factor for a successful fermentation. The optimum temperature for sauerkraut fermentation is 18ºC – 21ºC (65ºF – 70ºF).

Ingredients:

  • 2 heads of fresh green cabbage
  • Sea salt as required (usually 1.5% – 2.5% of the weight of cabbage)

Method:

Ensure all utensils and hands are thoroughly cleaned.

Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage heads. Reserve one or two outer leaves.

Cut the cabbage into quarters and remove the core.

Shred the cabbage into fine strips.

Sprinkle salt evenly over the shredded cabbage.

Using hands, squeeze and knead the shredded cabbage thoroughly to ensure the cabbage and the salt are well mixed and to draw out the juices. It is important to ensure that every single shred of cabbage is salted. Uneven salting of cabbage can be attacked by undesirable bacteria and organisms which could result in spoilage thereby rendering the entire batch unfit for consumption.

Continue squeezing and kneading until the cabbage turns limp and releases its juice.

Transfer the cabbage into a clean and dry crock. Press down as tightly as possible to encourage juice formation and remove any air bubbles.

Don’t fill the crock, leave some air space between the cabbage and the opening of the crock.

Pour the cabbage liquids. Ensure the cabbage is completely submerged in liquid. This step is absolutely critical. Lactobacillus cultures need an anaerobic environment to thrive and this brine is an anaerobic environment. If any of the cabbage is exposed to air, the fermentation process could be affected resulting in spoilage.

Take one or two of the outer leaves and cover the top of the shredded cabbage. Press down.

Place a stone weight on top of the cabbage. This prevents the shredded cabbage from floating up thereby ensuring the cabbage remains completely submerged in the brine at all times.
Both the cabbage and the stone weight should be immersed in the brine. This ensures that any scum or froth that forms on top of the brine does not reach the cabbage below the stone weights and could be easily skimmed off.

Cover the fermentation crock with the lid and seal it by filling the groove around the crock with water.

Set the crock aside undisturbed for at least 2 weeks to allow the fermentation process to take effect.

The sauerkraut is usually ready in 4-6 weeks, after which time it could be transferred to the fridge.

Refrigeration would not stop fermentation, but rather its slows down the process. Thus, the sauerkraut would continue to ferment and its ‘sourness’ will increase with time.

When spooning out sauerkraut from the crock, ideally, use a wooden spoon.

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Jiaozi (Dumplings) 饺子

A mainstay of Chinese cuisine, “jiǎozi” 饺子, which means “dumplings” in Mandarin, is a stuffed dumpling with origins in the Eastern Han Dynasty dating back 2,000 years ago.

Although widely consumed in China all year round, especially in the northern regions, these succulent treats are one of the most popular traditional foods consumed during Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival 春节 chūnjié) and is often prepared by family members on the eve on the new year. Jiǎozi’s importance as a Chinese New Year staple stems from its shape, which closely resembles the gold and silver ingots used as currency in ancient China and is thus consumed to usher wealth, good fortune and prosperity for the new year. Sometimes, a sanitized coin would be stuffed into a jiǎozi; the lucky one to land the coin-stuffed dumpling is believed to enjoy good fortune for the coming year.

Jiǎozi is also traditionally consumed by folks in northern China during the Dongzhi Festival 冬至 (Winter Solstice Festival), a tradition born out of the belief that eating dumplings helps prevent frostbitten ears.

As the story goes, during one particularly cold winter, Zhang Zhongjing 张仲景 , one of China’s most distinguished physicians who lived during the Han Dynasty, saw many local people suffering from frostbitten ears. In an effort to alleviate their situation, the kindly doctor mixed some traditional Chinese medicine, meat and other ingredients and made a new kind of food with vague resemblance to ears – dumplings. These dumplings were distributed to the local people who were cured of their frostbite. Word went around that consuming dumplings cured frostbite which grew into the tradition we see in northern China today. Zhang Zhongjing 张仲景 is also thus credited as the inventor of jiǎozi.

Jiaozi’s delicate wrapper or skin, known as “jiaozi pi” 餃子皮 in Mandarin is made with wheat flour. The wheat grain, a staple of northern Chinese cuisine (rice is the staple or southern Chinese cuisine) has been milled for thousands of years in China.
Initially, flour milling was a grueling affair where equipment such as the saddle quern were operated by hand to grind wheat grains into flour. Later, mechanized flour processes let to increased productivity gains; the Chinese were believed to be one of the first users of water powered milling equipment.
After grinding the wheat grains, the resultant flour needs to be sifted to separate the finer grains from the coarser ones (so the coarser grains could be discarded or reground). The Chinese again are believed to be the pioneers of flour sifting, having extrapolated the prevalent technology for weaving silk using a fine mesh. Evidence exists that the sieving of powders for human consumption was practiced in China before such processing began in the West.

The jiaozi wrapper is made by mixing the flour with an adequate quantity of water. The amount of water required would vary with the quality of the dough, humidity conditions etc. Thus, it would be difficult to specify a fixed ratio of flour to water and seasoned Chinese cooks rarely go by any recipes when making jiaozi dough.

Traditionally, boiling water is used to form the dough because it helps produce a softer and elastic dough (cold water does not produce the same qualities and hence results in an inferior dough). Needless to say, freshly ground floor produces a better quality dough resulting in a jiaozi that is superior taste-wise and nutrition-wise.

Jiǎozi’s versatility has given rise to a plethora of stuffings such as beef with celery, shrimp and eggs with leeks as well as vegetarian stuffings. Arguably the most popular traditional stuffing is a mixture of ground pork, Chinese cabbage, scallions, soy sauce, salt, sugar and monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Jiǎozi are traditionally boiled or steamed. When the dumplings are pan-fried they are known as guōtiē 锅贴 which in Mandarin literally means “stuck to the wok”.

Boiled jiǎozi, known as “shuǐjiǎo” 水饺 in Mandarin, is made by dropping the dumplings in boiling water and boiling them until they float and the skins turn somewhat transparent. The traditional method calls for boiling the jiaozi three times, each time after adding a certain quantity of cold water.
Steamed jiǎozi, known as “zhēng jiǎo” 蒸饺 is made by steaming the dumplings in circular bamboo steamers stacked over a wok of boiling hot water.

Jiaozi wrapper:

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups wheat flour
  • Boiling water as required to form a dough

Method:

Sift flour.

Bring water to a boil.

Slowly add a portion of the boiling water to the sifted flour.

Mix with chopsticks until the dough forms a crumbly texture. If the dough is too dry add more water.

When dough is cool enough to handle, take out and knead until it forms a soft, pliable and elastic texture. The dough should not be sticky. Add flour or water as required.

Wrap the dough with a damp cloth and set aside to rest for about 1 hour.

After an hour, divide the dough into quarters. Roll each quarter into a rope about 1 inch (about 2.5 centimeters) in diameter.

Cut the rope into 5/8 inch (about 1.5 centimeters) pieces.

Flatten each piece with your palms and roll into rounds with a rolling pin. Each round should be 3 – 3 1/2 (about 7.5 cm – 8.5 cm) inches in diameter and 1/16 – 1/8inches (about 0.1cm – 0.3 cm) thick.

Keep the skins covered to ensure they stay moist and don’t dry out. Ideally, assemble the jiaozi immediately after rolling out the wrapper.

Version 1 (Vegetarian filling)
Ingredients:

  • 1 cup Chinese black mushrooms- soaked in warm water, washed and chopped to cubes
  • 3/4 cup carrot – sliced thinly
  • 1lb (about 500 grams) medium sized Chinese cabbage
  • 1 inch sized ginger – minced
  • 4 green onions (white and green portions) – minced
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • Salt as desired
  • 1-2 tbsp peanut oil

Method:

Separate cabbage leaves and blanch in boiling water. Set aside to cool.

Once cooled, slice the cabbage thinly.

Heat a wok over medium high heat.

Add peanut oil and then add ginger.

Fry till fragrant.

Add chopped mushrooms and fry until mushrooms are tender.

Add cabbage and carrots. Fry till tender. Mixture should be mushy.

Set aside to cool.

Once cooled, add sesame oil, soy sauce, Shao Xing wine, salt and chopped green onions.

Filling is ready for jiaozi assembly.

Version 2 (Pork and cabbage filling)
Ingredients:

  • 1 lb (about 500 grams) pork with fat – minced
  • 1 lb (about 500 grams) medium sized Chinese cabbage
  • 2-3 green onions (white and green portions) – minced
  • 1 inch piece ginger – minced
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • Salt as desired
  • 1/4 – 3/4 cup pork stock

Method:

Separate cabbage leaves and blanch in boiling water. Set aside to cool.

Once cooled, chop the cabbage to 1/4 – 1/2 inch pieces.

Combine chopped cabbage with all other ingredients, except the pork stock.

Add the pork stock a little at a time, mixing continuously in clockwise direction, until the mixture turns wet and sticky. You may not require all the pork stock, so don’t add all at once.

Filling is ready for jiaozi assembly.

Assembling the jiaozi:

Take a jiaozi wrapper and set it on the working table.

Moisten the edge of the wrapper with water (this may not be necessary if the wrapper is freshly rolled out or has not been set aside for too long).

Place one tablespoon of filling into the wrapper.

Fold the wrapper, bringing the edges close together but ensure they don’t stick.

Starting from the right side, pinch one edge into pleats, pasting the pleat onto the other edge, thereby forming a crescent shaped jiaozi that is pleated on one side.

Cooking the jiaozi:

Boiled jiaozi:

Pour water to a large wok.

Bring the water to a boil over high heat.

Add as many jiaozi that would cover the base of the wok but don’t overcrowd it. Stir gently to ensure none of the jiaozi stick to the base of the wok.

When water comes to a boil, add about 1 cup of cold water. Cover and bring water to a boil. Repeat this process two times.

When the water boils for the third time, the dumplings are ready.

Steamed jiaozi:

Arrange dumplings in a bamboo steamer basket.

Pour 3 cups of water into a large wok.

Bring water to boil over high heat.

When water boils, place the bamboo steamer basket into the wok.

Steam for about 6-10 minutes.