This is one of those one-pot meals that are extremely easy to make and extremely tasty. The magic happens during the last bit of simmering when the starches released from the rice cakes combine with the liquid cooked out of the napa cabbage to create a velvety, luscious sauce. It is satisfying and oh so very delish.
Even though I use the word "braise" which may suggest a long cooking process, it is only braised for 20-25 minutes. The combination of napa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms and shredded pork is what I always consider the "Shanghai flavor trifecta". That combo is somehow more than the sum of it's parts and makes it's appearance in several popular classic dishes such as this braised rice cake dish, a stir fried version of this rice cake dish (aka a drier less-saucy version often served at restaurants), another stir fry except with thick and chewy "shanghai noodles", and also as a filling inside crispy fried spring rolls (my favorite). From my frame of reference mostly growing up in Canada with a Shanghai-nese paternal grandmother who (until she passed) cooked us legit meals every Sunday when we visited as children, those three ingredients combined is undoubtedly Shanghai-nese. I love it. Everyone loves it! And you don't even have to grow up on it like I did to adopt this dish as a great stand-by comfort food.
- Rice Cakes: If rice cakes ("nian gao" in Chinese) are unfamiliar to you, they are made from glutinous rice or sometimes brown rice, pounded and formed into thin discs or logs. You will need to source them from either a Chinese or Korean grocery store. Where I get them, they come vacuum packed in dried or frozen form. I usually buy the frozen sliced discs and keep a couple of packs in my freezer for when the craving strikes. For my frozen discs, I like to soak them in cold water for at least 30 minutes up to half a day. I find they braise more thoroughly and quickly this way. If you get dried ones, I think it would be best to pre-soak them this way as well. If you don't have the time to pre-soak, you can definitely cook them directly from the package but it would logically take a bit longer to cook through. Simply try biting into a piece to test it out until it is tender yet still chewy, probably an extra 5-10 minutes. Be careful not to overcook or else you will have mush.
- 4-5 lbs of Napa Cabbage: My recipe calls for what may be an alarming 4 to 5 pounds of Napa cabbage, which would be the equivalent of a giant-sized one typically only found at Korean markets or more likely 2 medium ones sold at conventional grocery stores. Trust me on this one. Those suckers cook down more than you expect and you're gonna want a lot of it in the final dish.
- If using dried shiitake mushrooms, you can reconstitute them overnight (8-12 hours) in a large bowl of water so they'll be ready to use when you begin cooking.
- You can cook everything in advance (a day or two before serving) up to the point of adding the rice cakes, except I suggest to under cook the cabbage since it will be reheated and braised again when rice cakes are added. Take note of how much liquid is in the pot. Allow the cooked napa, shiitake, pork mixture to cool down and store it in the fridge. As it cools and sits in the fridge, the mixture will become less liquidy. After the mixture has been reheated, see if it needs a splash more water or broth to get it back to a similar consistency before it went in the fridge. Then add the rice cakes. You want a similar amount of liquid in the pot to braise the rice cakes. The liquid is what makes the magic happen, when simmered with the rice cakes to create a thick, viscous sauce.
Braised Rice Cakes with Napa Cabbage + Shiitake + Pork
Recipe serves 4.
6-8 shiitake mushrooms, dried or fresh (if fresh, skip reconstitution step 1)
1 pkg (~700g) rice cake slices, vacuum packed frozen or dry
1 lb pork tenderloin or pork shoulder
4-5 lbs Napa cabbage (yes it looks like a lot, but trust me on this one)
Oil for sauteing the pork
Marinade for the pork:
2 tbsp tamari (or soy sauce if gluten intolerance is not an issue)
1 tsp kosher salt
Few dashes of white pepper powder (or black pepper if you don't have)
1. If you are using dried shiitake mushrooms, snap off the stems and put aside (I always keep them for making broth). If you can't snap off a particularly stubborn stem, just leave it to cut off later. Reconstitute the dried shiitakes by soaking them in hot water for at least an hour or two, or until the middle is no longer opaque when you cut it. Since dried shiitake mushrooms can range significantly in size, it could take several hours for the really larger ones. Using hot water rather than cool water speeds up the process. If more convenient, you can also soak them overnight - see "Make Ahead" notes.
2. Place rice cakes in a large bowl and pour enough fresh tap water to cover it. Soak at room temperature for several hours (or minimum 30 minutes). I like doing this as I find the rice cakes will cook more evenly and quicker. See "Rice Cakes" headnote above if you don't have time to pre-soak.
3. Cut the pork into "strips". You do this by first cutting it into thin slices about 1/4" thick, and then cutting each slice lengthwise into several strips also about 1/4" thick. Depending on how bulky your piece of pork is (such as a piece of pork shoulder might be), you may have to cut it down into thinner "logs" (~1.5" thick) first before beginning - do this lengthwise along the natural grain of the muscle if you can. Even though my personal preference is pork strips in this dish, you may also leave them in slices if you want to save time, in which case slice them super thin. Place the pork in a bowl and combine well with all the marinade ingredients. Set it aside at room temperature to marinade (or keep in the fridge if not ready to use it within 30 minutes).
4. For napa cabbage, I like to chop first then wash by dumping them into a clean sink filled with water (and a generous splash of white vinegar for extra cleaning power). Cut the napa crosswise into strips - the leafy green parts about 2" thick and the firm white stem parts about 1" thick. I do this so they cook evenly. If you napa is particularly massive, you may want to cut it lengthwise down the middle first. Let it soak in the water for 5-10 minutes, then drain and rinse thoroughly. Keep it in a large colander (or two -- that's a lot of cabbage!) to drain off excess water while you proceed to the next step.
5. Heat a large (at least 4 quart which is what I use) dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium to medium-high heat. The pot must be large enough to hold everything eventually, albeit the napa cabbage will cook down significantly.
6. Slice the fresh or reconstituted (per step 1 above) shiitake mushrooms thinly.
7. When the pot is thoroughly heated, add about a tablespoon of oil (such as grapeseed, coconut oil or other high-heat oil) and toss in the marinaded pork. Stir fry it and keep it moving until it is just browned. Don't worry whether it is thoroughly cooked through at this point - it will get braised later. Remove browned pork from the pot and park it back in the marinade bowl for now. Add another tablespoon of oil and begin sauteing the sliced napa cabbage. You will have to do this in 3-4 batches, each time letting the batch cook down enough to make room before adding another. No need to add more oil though. At this point it will seem impossible to squeeze all of it in, but I most certainly did manage to do it in my 4-quart Staub :) Once all of the napa has been squeezed in, put the lid on and allow it to wilt down and their water begin to release inside the pot. Once they are manageable for stirring, you can add back the pork and the sliced shiitake mushrooms, giving it all a big stir to mix evenly. There should be quite a bit of liquid in the pot at this point, from the cabbage. Drain the rice cakes and pile them on top. Do NOT mix. You don't want the rice cakes touching the bottom of the pot, or else they will stick during braising. Put the lid on and turn down the heat so you get a nice simmer for 20-25 minutes. Check rice cake doneness by cutting or biting into one. It should be soft and cooked through, but still chewy. If required, put the lid back on (without stirring) and braise a little longer. Watch carefully so you don't overcook the rice cakes which would get too mushy. Once done, stir well to distribute evenly. There should be a nice viscous "sauce" created by the starch from the rice cakes and the cabbage liquid. That's my favorite part! Serve immediately, preferably with Chinese chili oil or sriracha if you run out of chili oil like I did. Enjoy xx
p.s. This dish has a tendency to get a bit mushier and less saucy as it sits around, since the liquid gets absorbed by the rice cakes. While it is at it's peak deliciousness when enjoyed immediately, I nevertheless often enjoy the leftovers for lunch, which I reheat in the microwave.
If you like this recipe, pin it to Pinterest! You can also leave me a comment below to let me know what you think of this post - I would love that. If you make the recipe and post it to Instagram, tag your post with #saltnpepperhere so I can peep you :)