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Ian’s Table: Cute baby veg

Mini wombok is tasty accompaniment to this fish dish, with the important advantage of being very decorative as well

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing Reporter

Foil steamed sea bass with poached wombok served over fragrant spelt is easy to prepare and provides a nice mix of flavors and textures.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Back in December 2015, I wrote about a vegetable (Taipei Times, Dec. 26, 2015) that went by the cutesy name of “baby veg” or wawacai (娃娃菜). It is a member of the Brassica family (juncea Coss. var. Gemmifera to be specific) and is related to mustard greens, though with a much gentler flavor. At the time I was a bit confused, as the name is also used to refer to miniature versions of the Chinese cabbage, and while related through common associations with the Brassica family (though in this case Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis), it couldn’t look or taste more different.

Chinese cabbage is a mainstay of much Asian cooking, with a taste and texture profile that is quite distinct from headed cabbage (comprising several cultivars of Brassica oleracea) that is such a stalwart of European cuisine. It looks quite different as well, being elongated rather than round, and there is even a theory that it is not really a cabbage at all, with a family history that involves dubious relations with the turnip.

Chinese cabbage is also known as napa cabbage, a name that some say derives from its cultivation in the Napa valley of California, while others insist that the name is a transformation of “nappa,” a regional colloquial Japanese term referring to vegetable leaves generally. In Australia it is often referred to as “wombok.” As the vegetable is not regarded as particularly Chinese within Asia, and napa and wawacai both invite confusion, I think wombok does the best job of referring to this little gem of the vegetable kingdom.

Wombok is now widely available outside Asia and is prized for its sweetness and tenderness, along with a much subtler flavor than headed cabbage. It can be eaten raw, and the leaves, when shredded, are perfect for salads and slaws. The firmer stem section is excellent in soups and braises, providing crunch if lightly cooked, or deepening flavor when left to gradually cook down.

The miniature version of this cabbage, which uses the moniker of wawacai, exaggerates the aesthetic and culinary aspects of its larger manifestation. They are perfect mini cabbages that can be eaten whole or halved, and look like a natural version of the famous Jadeite Cabbage with Insects (翠玉白菜) that is probably seen by every visitor to Taiwan’s National Palace Museum.

While they can be used in all applications that their full grown family members might be found in, their more delicate flavor suits them particularly to gentle preparations such as poaching.

As with other types of cabbage, or indeed vegetables generally, wombok has many health benefits, particularly in being a low calorie source of plentiful quantities of dietary fiber, vitamins (notably vitamin K which is said by some to improve defenses against dementia) and minerals (particularly calcium and magnesium for bone health).

The health conscious take comfort in as many of these claims as they want, but ultimately, the appeal of miniature wombok for many is that is looks really cute on the plate. It actually tastes really good as well, and that is a big plus. Like cabbage, they keep well in the fridge, but are nevertheless best eaten fresh.

Recipe (serves two)

Foil steamed sea bass with poached wombok served over fragrant spelt

Minitature wombok works really well poached, and the combination of sea bass with just a hint of piggy saltiness from the salt pork makes for a delicious combination. The dish can be quite as easily served on white or herbed rice, but alternative grains are all the rage right now and the creaminess of spelt slowly cooked in stock gives a chewy yet unctuous undertone to the fish. As cooking with stock is such a major part of this recipe, homemade is definitely preferable.

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