October 19, 2006
Napa Cabbage with Golden Tofu

Cabbage gets no respect. It's the unloved cousin of lettuce, which quite undeservedly hogs the limelight with flashy salads and wraps. Sure, you see cabbage in slaws, but for most of us, cabbage is a food we associate with heavy Eastern Ruropean dishes and that weird smell at Grandma's house. And I don't mean the good Grandma's house that smells like sugar cookies and apple pie, I mean the other one who smokes all the time and has a big bowl of butterscotch or root beer barrel hard candy that's all stuck together in a crystal dish on her coffee table.

But that's just not fair. Cabbage can be delicious even outside of the slaw-ter house, especially when its prepared in an Asian style and spiced just right.

This recipe uses a few spices, some oil, some tofu, and a whole head of Napa or Chinese cabbage. Napa cabbage is one of my favorites because it stands up to cooking, and the tips of the leaves get this amazing texture when wilted by the heat of the skillet. You can recognize a napa cabbage by it's long leaves. Napa is to regular tightly wrapped head cabbage what Romaine lettuce is to iceberg - long shape, looser leaves and more flavor.

I was too lazy to dig out the wok and used a big 12" skillet but you could certainly produce this recipe in a wok. . And before you all write in, yes, I know this isn't strictly speaking "golden tofu", but I thought it certainly looked like golden tofu and it tastes fantastic so quit being such a stickler, why don't you? Harrumph.

Try the tofu when you first fry it and then try it again after it's cooked with the cabbage a little. The crunch on the fried and dry tofu is great, but I also appreciate the texture of the tofu after the crust has been softened by the cabbage and sauce. If you prefer, marinate the tofu first and add it in only at the end to maintain the crunch.

Napa Cabbage with Golden Tofu
1 head napa cabbage, about 2 pounds.
1/4 cup soy sauce
up to 1 cup water
1 tablespoon cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon flour (or 1/2 tablespoon corn starch mixed with water)
pepper to taste

1/4 cup peanut oil (enough to cover bottom of skillet shallowly)
1 pound extra firm tofu, not silken style - the kind packed in water

Prep the cabbage. Wash it well, cut the stem end off and chop it into 3"-4" wide pieces.

Prep the tofu. Cut it into three slabs of about 1" height each. Place the bottom slab on paper towels. Separate the layers with more paper towels and stack the tofu slabs. Put paper towels on top of the stack, then a plate and a weight (a can of tomatoes works fine) and let the weight press water out of the tofu for ten to thirty minutes. Cut the tofu into 1"-1 1/2" squares or triangles.

Heat the peanut oil in a large skillet. We'll use this skillet for the cabbage later so it should be a very large skillet indeed. When the oil is hot, carefully lay the tofu squares into the pan. Fry for 3-4 minutes until the bottom side is a light golden brown. Use tongs and carefully tur the tofu over until the other side is also golden brown. The sides will still have a stripe of white when you're done. That's perfect. Remove to a dish and set aside.

Drain the oil from the skillet, but don't wipe it clean. Return the skillet to the heat and add the smashed garlic. Sautee for about a minute then add the cabbage. Sautee for abotu 30 seconds then add 1/2 cup of the water. Let the cabbage simmer in the water for about a minute or two. Most of the water should evaporate away and the cabbage should start to wilt. add the soy sauce and cumin and cayenne and sesame oil and toss the cabbage well.

If the cabbage starts to fry at any point, add a ittle more water, but don't drown the stuff (precision instructions, eh? But you really have to just feel it out). After the cabbage has wilted in the heat, you should start to have significant liquid in the pan. Tilt the pan slightly and carefully (very carefully, please, don't spill anything) and push the cabbage "uphill" in the pan. Liquid should accumulate in the bottom part of the pan. Beat in the flour or cornstarch/water mix to thicken the sauce. Keep the pan tilted a minute or so to help boil off some of the moisture and thicken it into a brown sauce.

When the sauce has thickened a little bit (it'll still be pretty thin), add the tofu and stir the cabbage and tofu together. Cook for two minutes longer, then serve immediately. You'll be surprised at how tasty it is.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at October 19, 2006 7:07 AM Print-friendly version

I wouldn't be surprised at all. This is just the kind of dish I love. Thanks for the recipe.

Posted by Amy on October 19, 2006 at 11:55 AM

I wouldn't be surprised at all. This is just the kind of dish I love. Thanks for the recipe.

Posted by Amy on October 19, 2006 at 12:27 PM

The true is, that cabbage is really a part of our traditional cuisine here in eastern Europe. But needn´t be "heavy food". TRY: chopped cabbage mixed with minced or chopped potatoes, ,marjorie, minced garlic,salt and pleine flour to make a light staff/thicker than omelette/ and than fried on oil until crispy and brown! Try as well with sour cabbage. Can be filled like omelette with some sauté, mushrooms.....

Posted by randy on October 20, 2006 at 3:25 AM

Also, check out one of Barrett's earliest recipes for Cabbage and Lentil Salad:


It's slightly spicy and garlicky, very light and healthy and absolutely delicious!

Posted by Meg in Paris on October 20, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Is cabbage really related to lettuce? I never knew that!

Posted by KathyF on October 20, 2006 at 6:43 AM

Kathy -- I think Barrett was saying that regular cabbage is similar to (and distinguishable from) napa cabbage in the same way that iceberg lettuce is similar to (and distinguishable from) romaine lettuce, and not that cabbage and lettuce are related. (They are related, but only distantly, in the way that people and dogs are related by both being mammals. Cabbage is much more closely related to things like broccoli, cauliflower, and kale (which genetically are all in the same species), and a little less closely related to other mustard greens like bok choi and napa cabbage (both in the same genus as regular cabbage). (Bok Choi: regular cabbage's Neanderthal Man.))

Posted by Sweth on October 20, 2006 at 8:12 AM

This looks so good - too bad I have a cabbage and tofu hating spouse!

Posted by Meg in Paris on October 23, 2006 at 5:16 AM

Kathy, lettuce is in the sunflower family, Asteraceae. Cabbage and other crucifers are in the Brassicaceae.

Posted by David on November 5, 2006 at 12:04 AM


I noticed you are in MD. Is their a Kitchen MD or DC in the metro area? We've been searching for commercial kitchen use for months now and have come close, but in the end landlords go MIA....

We would LOVe to know if the DC is lucky enough to have something like Chicago!!

Posted by Katharine on November 9, 2006 at 12:22 PM

Absolutely a fantastic recipe. I made need to tone down the cayenne for my friends but I found this to be just great! Thank you

Posted by Jerry on May 3, 2009 at 6:30 AM

Holy Crap!!! Way too much cumin. Our family loves spicy but this was nasty. Will try again with much less cumin. Has much potential as other flavors were quite nice.

Posted by Kath on January 26, 2013 at 11:36 PM
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