Mustard cabbage: 'the most underrated greens to grace Australian tables'

The Guardian Lifestyle 1 month ago

When you’re a kid, you mishear things. I misheard approximately a quarter of what was said to me from the ages of 0 to 16. It didn’t help that English was my second language, however that was no excuse as I also misheard lots of things my mother said in my native Thai.

I wondered for so long why a music concert at school was called a “Musical Beaver”. Until my mother, for whom English was also a second language, explained to me that it was called “Musica Viva”.

Sitting around a banquet table with my family at the esteemed Golden Century restaurant, when I heard my mum order the special “master cabbage hearts stir fry”, I imagined a hero vegetable complete with cape.

And that is exactly what mustard cabbage is to me. Brassica Juncea is probably one of the most underrated greens to grace Australian tables.

Long a staple of Asian and African cuisines, it’s quite easy to find in many Asian grocers. When I was younger it used to be available for only a short period of the year, hence why it was on the “specials” menu at GC. Now, like most crops, you can get it all year round.

Perhaps because of the name “mustard cabbage”, this luxurious veg gets a bad rap. Sounding extremely unsexy when held up against “cavolo nero” or “rainbow chard”, well, it seems like it would taste a bit … gaseous.

But it is likely to be one of the most deliciously sweet, tender and succulent greens you will ever eat, with an intriguing, ever-so-slight hint of a bitter note when touched with a bit of heat from its fresh state. It’s a hard one to cook badly too.

The outer leaves are a deep emerald colour with feathery ridges which turn an even deeper jade when cooked. They shelter a beautiful tight heart that keeps its secret only to unfurl when the plant is very mature. And as yet I haven’t come across a woody stalk that requires extended chewing time.

It can be used in a myriad of ways, from simply being stir fried with a bit of fat or blanched, glammed up with confit garlic, salt and a touch of acid, or added as a braised green to stews and soups.

At Pipit, in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, chef Ben Devlin serves it grilled over coals and brushed with garum. It can also be preserved and pickled, where it adds deep layers of umami – in particular to vegan dishes. You can eat it as a side or a main with a protein addition or most traditionally, as the starring vegetable course in a shared family style setting.

Grilled swordfish with mustard leaf and squid ragu from Pipit Restaurant Photograph: Supplied

Oh gai choy, how do I love thee, let me count the ways. Shall I tell you one more? Likely it may be for this I love it most - mustard greens are an extremely beneficial cover crop for soil health. Fast growing, it adds excellent biomass to make top soil and it suppresses pathogenic fungi and nematodes, as well as weeds and grasses making it an excellent bed preparation for its successors to be planted out next.

As far as greens go it certainly is one of the heroes. On second thoughts, maybe I didn’t mishear my mother when she called it “master cabbage”.

Gai choy, shiitake and young ginger stir fry

Serves 1 or 4 as a side family style

Prep 10 mins
Cook 5 mins
Serves 1 or 4 as a side

1 large bunch gai choy washed and cut into 10cm lengths, the heart split into halves or quarters
4 garlic cloves smacked with the butt end of a cleaver and roughly minced
4 fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms cut into quarters (if using dried, soak first until pliable to slice)
10gr ginger julienned finely
2 tbs rendered pork fat or any healthy fat/oils
1 tbs braggs aminos protein or light soy sauce
1 tbs premium oyster sauce
1 tbs mirin

Mix the mirin, oyster sauce and braggs aminos protein together to make a sauce and keep aside next to the wok as you start cooking.

Using the highest element of your stove, heat wok or frying pan until very hot (about two minutes) then spoon in the fat. Wait until the fat starts to ripple then add garlic. Stir fry quickly until golden brown, add shiitakes and ginger.

Stir until covered in pork fat and garlic then put in the Gai Choy and toss quickly.

Pour in sauce and toss a few more times until all the greens have touched the bottom of the wok or pan and the leaves are all covered with the sauce, sightly wilted and glistening a splendid jade hue.

Serve immediately on its own or spooned over hot jasmine rice.

Tags: Food

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