How to Make and Use Dongcai (Preserved Tientsin Cabbage)

Updated on August 22, 2019
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Foodstuff is a freelance food writer who has been exploring the art of fermentation. Traditional Chinese preserves is the latest project.

Dongcai is preserved Chinese "celery" cabbage (aka Tientsin cabbage, Napa or Nappa cabbage)
Dongcai is preserved Chinese "celery" cabbage (aka Tientsin cabbage, Napa or Nappa cabbage) | Source

What Is Dongcai?

Dongcai (or toong choi in Cantonese) is one of the most famous forms of Chinese preserved vegetables. Made from Chinese "celery" cabbage (Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis), it is sold in distinctive dark brown earthenware jars that are labelled "Preserved Tientsin Cabbage".

Widely used in home cooking, its distinctive savoury flavour sparks up many Chinese home-style dishes, from steamed meat "cakes", soups and noodle dishes to stir-fries.

Traditional earthenware crock for dongcai
Traditional earthenware crock for dongcai | Source

Dongcai Recipe: Overview

Dongcai is extremely easy to make; there are only three ingredients and four steps. Let's take a look at the overview, and then we'll discuss each step in greater detail, below.

Ingredients

(Scroll down for information about amounts and proportions).

  • Chinese cabbage
  • garlic
  • salt

Instructions

  1. Wash and chop the cabbage.
  2. Dry the chopped cabbage.
  3. Rub a salt and garlic paste through the dried cabbage (or just salt if the dongcai is intended for consumption by strict Buddhist vegetarians).
  4. Pack the seasoned dried cabbage pieces into jars and wait for it to mature.

I strongly recommend making a very large quantity for two reasons: shrinkage and the length of time to maturity.

As this vegetable has very high water content, there is massive shrinkage on drying. You will lose around 75 to 80% of the fresh weight during the drying process. So start with what might seem an almost an obscene amount of fresh Chinese cabbage. You won’t regret it!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Two heads of chopped Chinese cabbage fills this large container to overflowing.After the drying process, three heads of chopped Chinese cabbage barely fills half the same container.
Two heads of chopped Chinese cabbage fills this large container to overflowing.
Two heads of chopped Chinese cabbage fills this large container to overflowing. | Source
After the drying process, three heads of chopped Chinese cabbage barely fills half the same container.
After the drying process, three heads of chopped Chinese cabbage barely fills half the same container. | Source

The other reason for preparing a large quantity is because the maturing process is extremely long. In the trials that I have done, I found that it takes over 12 months before the preserve reaches optimum flavour development. This is the point where the cabbage has turned a rich caramel brown colour and developed a strong yet mellow umami (or savoury) aroma and flavour.

Now, let’s go through each step.

Step 1: Prepare the Cabbage

Wash and chop the leaves up into rough dice. You don’t need to do a very fine dice. The diced leaves will shrivel up when you dry them and you don’t want to end up with overly tiny pieces.

Transfer the chopped leaves into a very large container as you go. Once you’ve finished cutting up all the cabbages, use a large salad spinner to get dry off the diced cabbage. Getting rid of excess moisture reduces the drying time.

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Separate the leaves. Wash and slice the leaves.Cut the leaves into rough dice.
Separate the leaves. Wash and slice the leaves.
Separate the leaves. Wash and slice the leaves. | Source
Cut the leaves into rough dice.
Cut the leaves into rough dice. | Source

Step 2: Dehydrate the Cabbage

Progressively load the dehydrator trays with diced cabbage that have had excess moisture removed in the salad spinner.

Dry the diced cabbage in the dehydrator at 35°C until they are fairly dry to the touch but not crisp dry. It takes me about 12 hours to achieve this level of dehydration.

With my dehydrator, I move the trays around from top to bottom after about 6 hours to ensure even drying.

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Diced cabbage ready for drying.
Diced cabbage ready for drying.
Diced cabbage ready for drying. | Source
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Step 3: Prepare the Salt and Garlic Paste

  1. Weigh the dried cabbage pieces: note the weight.
  2. Then weigh out sea salt equal to 20% of the weight of the dried cabbage, and peeled fresh garlic cloves equal to 5% of the dried cabbage weight.
  3. Place the salt and garlic cloves in a mortar and pound them into smooth paste.
  4. Add the salt and garlic paste to the dried cabbage pieces. Mix thoroughly by hand, making sure that all the cabbage pieces are evenly coated with the paste.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Pound salt and garlic to a smooth paste with a mortar and pestle.Smooth salt and garlic paste ready to be added to the dehydrated cabbage pieces
Pound salt and garlic to a smooth paste with a mortar and pestle.
Pound salt and garlic to a smooth paste with a mortar and pestle. | Source
Smooth salt and garlic paste ready to be added to the dehydrated cabbage pieces
Smooth salt and garlic paste ready to be added to the dehydrated cabbage pieces | Source
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Step 4: Allow Maturation (12 Months)

Pack the seasoned cabbage pieces tightly into glass or ceramic jars. Seal and leave to mature in a dark place. It will take at least 12 months for the dongcai to develop its rich mellow flavour and deep caramel colour.

After a day or two, you may see some liquid in the jars. This is just the remnant moisture in the cabbage being drawn out by the salt. Any exuded liquid is soon reabsorbed by the cabbage pieces.

There should be no visible liquid in the jar. However, if you pressed on the cabbage pieces with a spoon, a lot of liquid will be released. Do not try to remove this liquid.

I have found that the presence of the liquid actually assists in the development of the dongcai.

In the 1st trial, I used a spoon to press down on the cabbage pieces to extract as much liquid as possible. I drained off all the excess liquid so that the cabbage pieces were quite dry; not bone dry but devoid of any surplus moisture. This ended up impeding development of the dongcai.

As you can see in the comparison picture below, the colour of the dongcai from the first trial (lower jar) has remained at a pale beige and the flavour is actually quite insipid.

With the second trial, I only removed excess moisture after around 12 months. I did this simply by pressing down on the cabbage pieces in the jar with a spoon and draining off all liquid that exuded.

What you want to end up with is fermented cabbage pieces that are still moist but are not water-logged.

The mature dongcai will keep indefinitely in a cool dry place or in the refrigerator.

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Freshly made batch of dongcai packed into glass preserving jars with airlocks fitted on lids. Jar of mature dongcai for comparison. A batch of dongcai made from six Chinese celery cabbage, set aside to mature in an Esky.
Freshly made batch of dongcai packed into glass preserving jars with airlocks fitted on lids. Jar of mature dongcai for comparison.
Freshly made batch of dongcai packed into glass preserving jars with airlocks fitted on lids. Jar of mature dongcai for comparison. | Source
A batch of dongcai made from six Chinese celery cabbage, set aside to mature in an Esky.
A batch of dongcai made from six Chinese celery cabbage, set aside to mature in an Esky. | Source
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Steamed Pork With Dongcai is the ultimate comfort food!
Steamed Pork With Dongcai is the ultimate comfort food! | Source

Toong Choi Ching Chee Yoke (Steamed Pork With Dongcai)

This classic home-style Cantonese dish is the ultimate comfort food. A generous slice of this steamed meat “cake” mashed into hot steamed rice is my idea of heaven.

Dongcai serves as a seasoning agent for the pork. It is not meant to be the dominant ingredient. I recommend a ratio of about 25% of dongcai to minced pork as a rough guide.

Dongcai is quite salty so be restrained in seasoning the minced pork. You can always adjust for the level of saltiness with light soy sauce during the meal.

(Note: Commercial dongcai should be rinsed before use to get rid of excess salt. You can actually see salt crystallised on the cabbage pieces! I have not found it necessary to rinse the home-made dongcai.)

Serves 2

Ingredients

  • 300g coarsely minced pork
  • 75g dongcai
  • ¾ teaspoon tapioca flour (or corn starch)
  • ¾ teaspoon light soy sauce
  • ¾ teaspoon sesame oil
  • Ground white pepper

Instructions

Mix all the ingredients together. Spread the pork mixture in a shallow sided heatproof dish to make a patty around 1.5cm thick. Steam the minced pork “cake” over boiling water for 25 – 30 minutes.

Serve hot with steamed rice and a dish of stir-fried vegetables.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mix dongcai through the seasoned minced pork.Form the dongcai pork mixture into a pattie onto a heat-proof plate.There's lots of delicious meat juices after steaming. Spoon some of them onto your rice!Serve on hot steamed rice. Nothing more comforting than a generous serving of steamed pork with dongcai mashed into hot steamed rice, along with some of the juices.
Mix dongcai through the seasoned minced pork.
Mix dongcai through the seasoned minced pork. | Source
Form the dongcai pork mixture into a pattie onto a heat-proof plate.
Form the dongcai pork mixture into a pattie onto a heat-proof plate. | Source
There's lots of delicious meat juices after steaming. Spoon some of them onto your rice!
There's lots of delicious meat juices after steaming. Spoon some of them onto your rice! | Source
Serve on hot steamed rice.
Serve on hot steamed rice. | Source
Nothing more comforting than a generous serving of steamed pork with dongcai mashed into hot steamed rice, along with some of the juices.
Nothing more comforting than a generous serving of steamed pork with dongcai mashed into hot steamed rice, along with some of the juices. | Source
Dongcai pork balls with mung bean thread noodles in clear soup
Dongcai pork balls with mung bean thread noodles in clear soup | Source

Dongcai Pork Balls and Noodle Soup

The addition of dongcai to minced pork and to the soup base as well makes for a tasty noodle soup. I tend to use around dongcai equal to around 15% to 20% of the weight of minced pork.

Finely mince the dongcai for making the pork balls: this prevents the pork balls from falling apart when they are boiled.

You don’t need stock to make a tasty soup; the addition of some dongcai to water along with pork balls and vegetables are enough to make for a very tasty clear broth. You can use any vegetables you like. I like leafy greens for soup noodle dishes like this.

Serves 1

Ingredients for the Pork Balls

  • 100g coarsely minced pork
  • Approx. 15g to 20g dongcai, finely minced
  • ¼ teaspoon light soy sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon sesame oil
  • ½ teaspoon tapioca flour

Ingredients for the Soup

  • Approx. 750 ml water
  • Generous pinch dongcai
  • Leafy greens or other vegetables of your choice
  • Mung bean thread noodles or rice noodles or rice vermicelli
  • Salt and ground white pepper to taste

Optional Garnishes

  • Fresh coriander sprigs
  • Garlic oil
  • Freshly sliced red chillies

Instructions

  1. Make the pork balls by mixing all pork, finely minced dongcai and seasoning ingredients together. Form the pork mixture into small balls.
  2. Prepare the noodles according to instructions on the pack. Mung bean thread noodles and rice vermicelli need to be soaked in hot water until softened and then rinsed in cold water. Fresh rice noodles simply need to be blanched briefly with boiling water and drained.
  3. For the soup: Bring water to boil in a saucepan. Add a generous pinch of dongcai to the water.
  4. When the water is boiling, add the pork balls. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the leafy green vegetables to the soup. Boil briefly until the vegetables are just cooked. Taste the soup and adjust for salt.
  5. Place the noodles in a large bowl. Ladle the pork balls, vegetables and soup over the noodles. Garnish as desired. Enjoy!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Finely mince the dongcai to be used for addition to the minced porkMix finely minced dongcai with the seasoned minced porkPork balls with dongcai in soup
Finely mince the dongcai to be used for addition to the minced pork
Finely mince the dongcai to be used for addition to the minced pork | Source
Mix finely minced dongcai with the seasoned minced pork
Mix finely minced dongcai with the seasoned minced pork | Source
Pork balls with dongcai in soup
Pork balls with dongcai in soup | Source
Fat Rice Starch noodles tossed with dongcai minced pork and shitake mushroom sauce: a sort of Asian "spag bol"!
Fat Rice Starch noodles tossed with dongcai minced pork and shitake mushroom sauce: a sort of Asian "spag bol"! | Source

Dongcai, Pork and Mushroom Sauce on Rice Starch Noodles

This is the Chinese equivalent of “spag bol” with a rich savoury meat sauce over rice starch noodles.

Rice starch noodles are fat translucent white noodles. They may be long or short in length. The short ones are also called “rice drops” (aka “lo shee fun” in Cantonese, which is literally “mouse noodles”). This type of noodles only need to be blanched very briefly before using. You can find these noodles in most Asian grocery stores.

Rice starch noodles or rice drops are smooth and slippery but with a nice al dente texture. They can be used with soup dishes, stir-fried or briefly “braised” with a sauce as in this recipe.

Serves 2

Ingredients

  • 250g minced pork
  • 1 teaspoon oyster sauce
  • 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • ½ teaspoon tapioca starch
  • Ground white pepper
  • 3 – 4 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in boiling water
  • Approx. 50 g dongcai
  • 1 – 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • Oil for frying
  • 1 - 2 tablespoons sweet dark soy sauce
  • ½ teaspoon corn starch
  • Green leafy vegetables such as bok choy, choy sum, mustard greens, etc
  • Rice starch noodles or rice drops

Instructions

  1. Mix the minced pork with the oyster sauce, light soy sauce, sesame oil, tapioca starch and ground white pepper. Set aside.
  2. Drain the shitake mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut the shitake mushrooms into small dice.
  3. If the dongcai pieces are very large, chop them roughly into medium fine pieces. What you want if to have them roughly proportional in size to the diced mushroom.
  4. Blanch the rice starch noodles or rice drops briefly in boiling water. Then run under cold tap water. Drain and set aside.
  5. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a wok until smoking hot. Add the seasoned minced pork and fry, breaking up any clumps, until the pork is browned. Add the minced garlic and continue to fry until the garlic starts to colour.
  6. Add the diced shitake mushrooms and dongcai. Continue to fry for a few minutes.
  7. Drizzle the sweet dark soy sauce over the meat mixture and toss to evenly coat the mixture.
  8. Add some of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid to the mixture. You want just enough to create a small amount of sauce in the wok About 125 – 150 ml should suffice.
  9. Blend the corn starch with a bit of water and add to the wok. Stir and check that your meat mixture is evenly coated with a lightly thickened sauce.
  10. Add the vegetables of your choice. Fry briefly until the vegetables are just cooked.
  11. Add the rice starch noodles or rice drops and toss until even coated with the meat sauce. Check and adjust seasonings to taste.
  12. Serve hot. You can accompany this with some fresh sliced chillies or a chilli sauce of your choice.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Frying the meat mixture with mushrooms and dongcai. Just enough liquid is added to the meat mixture to create a small amount of sauce.Rice Starch Noodles - a closer viewRice Drops in Dongcai Mushroom Pork sauce. Rice Starch in Dongcai Mushroom Pork saucePacket of Rice Drop NoodlesPacket of Rice Starch NoodlesRice Drop Noodles - a closer viewRice Drops in Dongcai Mushroom Pork sauce. Italian rape as green leafy vegetable.
Frying the meat mixture with mushrooms and dongcai.
Frying the meat mixture with mushrooms and dongcai. | Source
Just enough liquid is added to the meat mixture to create a small amount of sauce.
Just enough liquid is added to the meat mixture to create a small amount of sauce. | Source
Rice Starch Noodles - a closer view
Rice Starch Noodles - a closer view | Source
Rice Drops in Dongcai Mushroom Pork sauce.
Rice Drops in Dongcai Mushroom Pork sauce. | Source
Rice Starch in Dongcai Mushroom Pork sauce
Rice Starch in Dongcai Mushroom Pork sauce | Source
Packet of Rice Drop Noodles
Packet of Rice Drop Noodles | Source
Packet of Rice Starch Noodles
Packet of Rice Starch Noodles | Source
Rice Drop Noodles - a closer view
Rice Drop Noodles - a closer view | Source
Rice Drops in Dongcai Mushroom Pork sauce. Italian rape as green leafy vegetable.
Rice Drops in Dongcai Mushroom Pork sauce. Italian rape as green leafy vegetable. | Source

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