Hand-Torn Flat Cabbage With Chinese Sausage and Garlic
Published Feb 14, 2020, Updated Oct 21, 2023
Family Day Treat
February 14 may be Valentine’s Day in your house, but in our house it’s Family Day. It’s the day, in 2011, that Craig and I first met Fongchong and she became our daughter. This year we celebrate the end of her ninth year with us, and, as always on this date, we’ll cook some of her favorite foods. Forget steak, scallops or chocolate, all of which she can take or leave, what will really make her happy is a big plate of cabbage.
Not just any cabbage, however. “It has to have flavor,” per her mantra. Big flavor.
You may think cabbage is just cabbage. But she and I had a plate of cabbage at a restaurant in Chengdu last summer that blew us away. Firstly, it was visually stunning, what with its big, irregular, hand-torn pieces. It had tell-tale signs of chiles—fresh green and pickled red—but it was not too spicy. It had small slices of cured pork, but it was not meaty. It had big chunks of garlic, so sweet you could and should eat them. And it sat in a pool of creamy, brothy sauce.
This is a restaurant’s take on a dish that graces every Chinese table. A couple years earlier we had lunch with Fongchong’s foster family the day Craig and I first met them. They served stir-fried cabbage, of course, with just a little bit of sweet red chili. It had come straight out of their giant countryside garden and needed no further embellishment. Fongchong had helped grow tons of cabbage in that garden, which was more like a small farm and provided most of the family’s vegetables and all of its rice. I’m not sure she loved being a farmhand at age 6, but she does have an abiding love for vegetables and knows what it takes to produce them.
We used the Chengdu dish as our aspirational blueprint for this dish, and developing the recipe for it unexpectedly led me to the discovery of a new and altogether awesome vegetable. At first I made the dish with Chinese cabbage, aka Napa cabbage, but although it was tasty, it wasn’t quite right. I looked more closely at the photos I’d taken of the original in the restaurant and realized they had used a different kind of cabbage. But what kind? The leaves were too light and crisp to be plain old green, round cabbage, although they were similar to it.
I made a trip to a nearby Thai grocery store and found another kind of cabbage, a flatter, disk-shaped head in a lovely light green and white. I took it home, and as soon as I started peeling off the giant leaves I knew I had found it—the same one used in Sichuan for that memorable dish. This cabbage is less densely packed, lighter textured and sweeter than green cabbage but sturdier and more uniform in texture than Chinese cabbage. It is sort of in the middle of the two texture- and taste-wise, and it is just right!
A little research showed that it is called Taiwanese flat cabbage, or just flat cabbage. You may have already discovered this wonder cabbage, but if you haven’t, keep your eyes open for it at Asian grocers and some farmers markets in the U.S. (And check out this cool Specialty Produce app, where the members send in photos as they spot veggies in the wild at markets. Search for Cabbage Taiwanese Flat.)
Another key to the Chengdu dish was the bits of seasoning meat, which seemed like lean bacon or some other cured pork. I do not have any Sichuan bacon because Homeland Security took mine from me when I landed back home after our last trip there and I have not made my own. So I used what cured meat I could find at my Asian market, which happened to be a sweet Cantonese-style sausage made by famous Beijing-based Sichuan restaurant chain Meizhou Dongpo. Good stuff. I used only half a link to flavor the dish, but Fongchong wished I had used more. If you do use more, the dish can be a one-wok meal.
Also key to the recipe is the creamy, garlic-scented sauce, made by thickening chicken broth with lard and cornstarch. Use a highly flavored homemade stock or cheat with a chicken base like Better Than Bouillon or Chinese-made Totole powder.
The chili peppers and Sichuan pepper are optional, as the dish is not meant to be mala (numbing and hot) but just delicately spiced. Try to balance all the ingredients so that no one flavor dominates or overpowers the cabbage itself. Our new friend flat cabbage is definitely the star of this show.
If you’re a fan of this cabbage with Chinese sausage, try the more tingly sour version at Sichuan Hand-Torn Cabbage Stir-Fry (Shousi Baicai, 手撕白菜)!
Hand-Torn Flat Cabbage With Chinese Sausage and Garlic
- 1 head flat cabbage (or substitute Chinese/Napa cabbage)
- ½ to 1 link Chinese sausage (spicy or sweet), thinly sliced on the diagonal (use amount to your liking)
- 1 tablespoon lard
- 1 tablespoon caiziyou (roasted rapeseed oil) or peanut oil
- 5-6 cloves garlic, large ones cut in half
- 2 chilies, cut in ½-inch lengths (pickled or dried, or 1 fresh hot chili)
- ½ teaspoon Sichuan flower pepper huajiao (or another whole red Sichuan peppercorn)
- ½ cup flavorful chicken broth
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon kosher salt (to taste)
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
- Discard blemished outer leaves of cabbage and carefully peel off the leaves. Tear the leaves by hand into large pieces, about 3 inches wide. If using Napa cabbage, break bottom section of stalks in half vertically to make manageable pieces. Use most of a small head of cabbage, or as much as will fit in your wok.
- Heat wok over a high flame until very hot, then lower heat to medium and add the lard and rapeseed oil (or a neutral cooking oil). Add sausage slices and stir-fry until pink disappears. Add garlic cloves, and move them around to insure they do not burn. Cook briefly, then add the chilies and Sichuan pepper. Allow aromatics to become fragrant, but do not brown.
- Add the cabbage and stir-fry, turning the contents from bottom to top with a wok spatula until the pieces begin to shrink a bit. They will mostly fill the wok at first, but will shrink after about a minute.
- Add the chicken broth to the wok and continue to flip the cabbage. Taste for salt, and add if needed. Cover wok with a lid and steam cabbage for about 2 minutes. When cabbage is done to your liking, stir in cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce. Plate and serve warm.
Tried this recipe?