Wombok (Brassica rapa var. pekinensis)

Also known as: Chinese cabbage, celery cabbage, Napa cabbage, Tientsin cabbage, wong nga bok.

Womboks have been cultivated in China since the 5th Century and remain one of the most popular vegetables in Asia. Although seeds were taken from China to Europe in the mid 1700s, wombok remained a curiosity among Europeans until the 1970s when commercial crops were grown in Israel and the Napa valley in California.

Like broccoli, turnips and many Asian leafy vegetables, womboks belong to the brassica family. Wombok is not a naturally occurring plant; it is thought to be a cross between a warm climate leafy brassica species (such as buk choy) and the cool climate turnip. There are tens if not hundreds of varieties, ranging from compact round barrels to long, slim cylinders.

While most varieties do best under cool conditions, womboks can be grown at various times of year across Australia. They are field grown and harvested when the heads are firm and appear mature. Similar to open-hearted lettuces, the leaves can be harvested while the wombok grows.

Under ideal conditions (high humidity, 0°C) womboks can be stored with little loss of quality for up to two months.

Womboks have a sweet, mild flavour that is quite different to European cabbage. The leaf blades can be slightly peppery, while the ribs are sweet and juicy. Inner leaves are protected from the sun, so are particularly tender.

There is almost no end to the ways womboks can be used, including coleslaw, hamburgers and sandwiches, dumplings and rolls, soups, casseroles and stir fries. The famous Korean relish, kim chi, is made from wombok pickled in salt, garlic and chilli. The leaves can be used as wrappers for other foods during steaming.

Womboks contain significant quantities of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C. Like other brassicas, womboks also contain glucosinolates. This group of sulphur compounds are widely believed to reduce the risks for certain cancers. They may also limit some factors that lead to cardiovascular disease.

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