Cabbage becomes gourmet food

QINGDAO, China - At S$8.97 (S$13) a head, vegetable climbs the food chain to favoured status

A type of "cabbage de terroir" now selling for 59 yuan (S$13) a head in Qingdao, Shandong province, has quickly become a sought-after ingredient for home chefs here and abroad.

As a staple in East China, nappa cabbage, or Chinese cabbage, usually equals inexpensive food, hence the expression, "as cheap as a cabbage".

But the Jiaozhou nappa cabbage, with a long history of cultural significance, and grown by modern farmers with improved technology, classical music and elaborate care, is winning fans as a gourmet vegetable.

Farmers in Jiaozhou, a county 50 kilometres northwest of downtown Qingdao, have grown the cabbage for hundreds of years. Many Chinese writers and artists have praised Jiaozhou cabbage in their work. Lu Xun, a Chinese writer and thinker active in the early 20th century, wrote in a famous story Mr Fujino that nappa cabbage tied with red ribbon, hanging upside-down in a vegetable store, was revered in the 1920s.

It is also a favoured vegetable of many politicians.

Yuan Shikai, the formal president of the Republic of China in the 1910s, is said to have craved Jiaozhou cabbage. Mao Zedong, founding father of the People's Republic of China, presented 2,500 kilograms of Jiaozhou cabbage as a birthday gift to Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin in 1949.

Although nappa cabbage is now widely grown in China, the Jiaozhou cabbage remains a distinctive regional product and is often exported to Japan and South Korea as an upscale ingredient.

Sun Haitao, a chef, said there are more than 50 recipes involving Jiaozhou vegetables in Shandong cuisine. "Its crispy texture and fruit-like taste make it great for cold salad," Sun said. "When cooked, an umami taste is generated."

Zhang Jubo, chairman of the Jiaozhou Cabbage Association, said that growing attention to food quality and safety has also helped the Jiaozhou cabbage gain popularity and a good price in the domestic market.

"We grow it strictly in accordance with organic standards, with soybean cake and chicken manure instead of chemical fertilizers, and we never use pesticides," Zhang said.

In addition, Jiaozhou farmers play classical music in the farm fields, which the growers insist helps the vegetables to grow "in a happy mood".

Zhang also cited the level of selenium, a mineral with antioxidant properties, in Jiaozhou cabbage, saying it is helpful in preventing diseases of the heart and prostate.

Apart from cabbage, Jiaozhou also boasts an award-winning pig species: the Licha black pig.

"Stir-fried Jiaozhou cabbage with Licha pork as well as bean starch vermicelli is a real delicacy," Zhang said.