Sichuan Hand-Torn Cabbage Stir-Fry (Shousi Baicai, 手撕白菜)
Published Feb 11, 2022, Updated Jun 17, 2023
Cabbage and Huajiao, Happily Ever After
This Sichuan Hand-Torn Cabbage Stir-Fry is a homestyle classic beloved in and out of Sichuan. It’s cheap, vegetarian, comes together in minutes and requires no special ingredients outside of a standard Chinese pantry. Plus, keep reading for an easy way to elevate this cabbage stir-fry into a Sichuan pepper (花椒, huājiāo) tasting experience!
Cabbage gets a bad rap in the U.S., but Chinese people love cabbage. We even have an idiom extolling its virtues—百菜不如白菜 (bǎi cài bùrú báicài), meaning “a hundred vegetables are not as good as cabbage.” When my dad was young, cabbage was one of the hardier vegetables his family farmed that stretched through months of winter storage with no refrigeration available. When even the cabbage ran out, a single head became more desirable than ever. In northern China, personal caches of stored cabbage still line the streets every winter.
Beijing’s cabbage stockpiling is a legendary testament to the crop’s versatility and hardiness. As long as you have cabbage, it will carry you through the worst of times. But for less apocolyptic, everyday measures, this cabbage stir-fry evolves quickly into a side or even one-bowl lunch.
Choosing a cabbage to stir-fry
手撕白菜 (shǒusī báicài) uses a flat, oblong cabbage readily carried by most Asian grocers. From the top it may be hard to distinguish from regular spherical cabbage, but check the sideview and you’ll immediately see the difference. You may find it labeled Taiwanese cabbage. Note that this differs from most 手撕包菜 (shǒusī bāocài) recipes, which use the common round cabbage with thinner leaves (圆白菜, yuánbáicài). Colloquially, many people call this cabbage baocai in addition to baicai.
Wash and scrub the outside of any dirt before peeling, then pat dry with a clean kitchen towel. You can also set aside to air-dry, but whatever you do, don’t proceed with wet leaves. We want the end product as crisp as possible, so moisture is the antagonist.
The titular step calls for hand-shredding the cabbage leaves into about 2-3 inch portions. The process of hand-shredding helps cleave leaves along their cell walls, whereas knife-slicing cuts straight through the cells. Doing so promotes weeping—and, therefore, more wilting. Hand-torn leaves will still shrink once stir-fried (though not as dramatically as spinach), but they retain internal moisture better, so they stay more crisp. Don’t tear too small, and aim for regularly shaped pieces to ensure even cooking.
There are two ways to approach blooming the aromatics. The usual route is to add the huajiao, dried chilies and sliced garlic to hot oil all at once as restaurants do (the fresh garlic will help prevent the huajiao and dried chilies from burning at such high heat). An alternative option is to add the huajiao first to cold oil, then strain them from the oil once it heats up and starts to smell fragrant. At this point, you would proceed to add the garlic and dry peppers and stir-fry as usual, reserving the huajiao for garnish.
If you dislike picking around the peppercorns, you can also leave them out entirely once they have flavored the oil. However, I think the strain-and-garnish method is the best way to preserve and showcase the brilliant red color and six-petaled flower shape of our Special-Grade Da Hong Pao Sichuan pepper. Letting the peppercorns release their aroma on their own time and removing them from the pan immediately once ready ensures there’s no chance of burning your premium Sichuan pepper.
In my experience, the slow cold-oil start infuses that tingly, citrusy flavor through the oil much better than the 2-minute flash fry in the usual method. So much better, in fact, that I found the handful of huajiao I usually prefer for my desired numbing level resulted in an even more exaggerated mouth-numbing experience this way. Like crackers to cheese, Chinese cabbage makes an excellent delivery vessel for premium huajiao. For the first time, I could really taste all the citrusy botanical notes without wondering if I was making it up in my head.
If you usually identify good Sichuan pepper by how tingly it gets, I highly recommend trying this method so you can better appreciate the whole package! Bonus, you’ll really impress your guests. Especially if they haven’t experienced huajiao before and don’t realize what they’re about to get into (in my defense, I didn’t know anyone else was going to eat my leftovers, and they loved it anyway).
For a classic variation of Sichuan Hand-Torn Cabbage Stir-Fry starring cured meat, try Taylor’s Hand-Torn Flat Cabbage With Chinese Sausage and Garlic!
Sichuan Hand-Torn Cabbage Stir-Fry (Shousi Baicai, 手撕白菜)
- ½ head medium flat cabbage, washed and dried
- 3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled
- 3-4 whole dried chilies (Facing Heaven zidantou preferred)
- 2 tablespoons caiziyou* (Chinese roasted rapeseed oil)
- ¾ teaspoon whole huajiao (Sichuan pepper) more to taste
- ¼ teaspoon salt more to taste
- pinch white sugar
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 1 teaspoon aged Chinese black vinegar
- Wash and scrub any dirt off the outer leaves of the cabbage, then pat dry or set aside until dry. Tear up half the head into about 2-inch square sections. Thinly slice the peeled garlic and set aside. Chop the dried chilis into halves or thirds (the more seeds exposed, the hotter the dish) and set aside.
- OPTION 1 HOT-OIL METHOD: If using a steel/cast iron wok or pan, heat pan on high until smoking and then add oil. If using nonstick, add caiziyou to pan and then heat on high until smoking. Once oil is hot, lift pan off the heat and add the huajiao, chopped chilies and sliced garlic together, stir-frying rapidly until fragrant.
- OPTION 2 COLD-OIL METHOD: In a wok or pan, add oil and huajiao to cold pan and then heat on medium until fragrant, stir-frying often. As soon as you can smell the huajiao aroma, but before they darken and burn, remove the huajiao from the pan and set aside. Turn the heat up to high until smoking, then lift pan off the heat and add the chopped chilies and sliced garlic together, stir-frying rapidly until fragrant.
- Return pan to burner on the highest heat setting and add the shredded cabbage. Stir-fry rapidly to coat with oil and add salt and sugar. Continue stir-frying about 2 minutes, until the cabbage color changes and the edges have turned translucent. Pour the soy sauce down the wall of the pan, not directly into the cabbage, and stir-fry rapidly to distribute. Add the vinegar also down the wall of the pan so the fragrance can volatilize, and stir-fry briefly. If you removed the huajiao during the cold-oil method, garnish the dish with them once plated. Serve immediately and enjoy!
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