Chinese Aromatics 101: Spicy and Sour Stir-Fried Cabbage With Bacon

The fiery flavors of Hunan come through in this simple stir-fried dish. Shao Z.

Study cuisines from around the world, and you'll find that many tend to rely on fairly consistent bases of aromatic vegetables, no matter the dish. In France, this vegetable base is known as mirepoix, and features celery, onions, and carrots. In Creole cooking, it's known as the holy trinity—onion, celery, and green bell peppers. Italy, Spain, German, and other countries and cuisines have their own variations as well. So what would the Chinese equivalent of mirepoix or the holy trinity be? The answer depends largely on the region.

In this series, we'll look at two of the most fundamental aromatic bases used in Chinese cooking: spicy (chili peppers and garlic) and aromatic (ginger, scallion, and garlic). First up: This twist on a Hunanese classic, Hand-Torn Cabbage. Located in south-central China, Hunan is famous for its intensely fiery, chili-spiked foods. Amazingly, this dish, loaded with red chilies, scallions, and garlic, is considered tame by Hunan standards.

In addition to its moderate spice, it's also a little bit sour, thanks to a splash of Chinkiang black-rice vinegar. It's great as part of a multi-course dinner where the other dishes are more intense, both in terms of overall flavor and also chili heat (you have to appreciate a cuisine that considers this dish, with its healthy dose of chilies, to be a respite from the truly spicy ones). The addition of bacon in this version adds a nice smoky, porky flavor, though a vegetarian version could just as easily be prepared using peanut or vegetable oil to stir-fry in place of the bacon fat.

The first step when making this dish is to tear the cabbage leaves by hand. It may seem a bit tedious compared to the efficiency of a knife, but the gracefully curved, uneven edges are a key characteristic of the dish, and give it a softer overall texture than sharply angled pieces would.

Next, you'll want to prepare the aromatics for the flavor base, in this case garlic, scallions, and red chilies. Fresh chilies are more common in Hunan cooking, and therefore are what I use here. I also like to stay true to Hunan's spicy flavor profile, and include the chilies' seeds to make sure I don't lose any of the heat they pack (for those sensitive to spicy foods, discarding the seeds is an option, though the dish will lose some of its impact).

The bacon adds a smoky, porky flavor that I really enjoy: Plus, it provides all the fat this dish requires for stir-frying.

Because cabbage can take a while to cook, I blanch it first in boiling water before proceeding to the stir-frying stage. This makes the stir-frying an incredibly fast process, and also reduces the chances that the aromatics will scorch and burn, which would be a bigger concern if you were stir-frying the cabbage from raw.

Then, I cook the sliced bacon over high heat until it's crisp and golden and much of the fat has rendered out. I transfer the bacon to a plate to drain, and discard all but one tablespoon of the rendered fat, which I keep in the wok for stir-frying.

Now for the fun part: My aromatic flavor base of scallions garlic, and chilies go in, and I cook them just long enough to lightly brown the garlic and release their flavors into the cooking fat.

Then I toss in the blanched cabbage, and cook it until warmed through.

For the final touch, I add a splash of vinegar and soy sauce, along with the crisped bacon. As soon as the cabbage is tender, it's ready to serve.