Winter’s best culinary hack

Don’t forget this must-have green vegetable at your next nabe night!

For those of us living in a climate with frosty winters, nothing beats the feeling of hot soup on a freezing cold day. But in Japan, there is nothing better than snuggling up under a kotatsu (heated table) around a bubbling communal bowl of delicious hot soup called nabe. That’s because for the Japanese, eating nabe goes beyond simply warming up with a bowl of hot soup, but is itself an event that provides an opportunity to connect over a delicious meal. However, before calling your friends over to gather around the donabe (nabe pot), there is one ingredient to get that is absolutely essential in a good nabe: hakusai.

The popularity of nabe has contributed to making hakusai one of the most consumed vegetables in Japan. This is especially true with the winter season now upon us, when hakusai can be easily found alongside donabe pots everywhere. Known more commonly in English as Chinese cabbage or napa cabbage, hakusai is an essential ingredient not just in nabe, but in a number of winter foods in Japan such as gyoza or cabbage rolls. In fact, if you’ve eaten at a Chinese or Japanese restaurant, there is a pretty good chance that you’ve already tried it. Hakusai is also the primary ingredient in the Korean culinary staple, kimchi.

If you’ve ever been to any of the Asian grocers around town, no doubt you’ve seen hakusai available for sale. This long, leafy vegetable with its pale yellowy-green and white hues is relatively easy to distinguish from most forms of lettuce and other cabbages. Hakusai is a cruciferous vegetable, making it a closer relative to broccoli or cauliflower than to other leafy greens. It is believed that when hakusai emerged several centuries ago in China, it was the result of a natural cross between pak choi, another leafy vegetable popular in Asian cuisine, and turnip.

Agriculturally speaking, winter is the best season for hakusai, which is why it is a staple in winter comfort foods. In fact, it is believed that the frost from cooler temperatures makes the flavour of hakusai even more enjoyable. And like most leafy vegetables, hakusai is low in calories and rich in nutrients. It is particularly rich in vitamin C, making it a perfect vegetable to fight off those seasonal symptoms that come with the colder weather. It is also incredibly inexpensive, especially from November through February, which is peak season for this widely enjoyed vegetable.

At the grocery store, it is not unusual to see hakusai cut in half and wrapped in clear plastic wrap, which preserves freshness; it should be stored the same way once you get it home. When shopping for this nutritious vegetable, make sure it feels heavy and that the leaves are crisp with bright white ribs to ensure you are getting one with the best flavour. Have any hakusai leftovers after your nabe night? Try it tossed with noodles, cooked in a stir-fry or even shredded as coleslaw.