If you’re in Japan at New Year’s, it’s likely you’ll be served a steaming bowl of ozoni. This traditional, good luck soup is made with vegetables, fish or meats and a piece of glutinous rice. Each region has its own spin on the exact ingredients, but if you’re in southern Japan, it’s likely to include Nagasaki Chinese cabbage, known as “tojinna” in the local dialect.
Prevailing belief says the variety was brought from China — perhaps Shangdong province — through the port of Nagasaki during the Edo period, between 1603 and 1868. After Portuguese traders began stopping there in the early 16th century, Nagasaki grew from a sleepy fishing village to a bustling port — and it was the only Japanese port open to foreign vessels and trade during the Edo period.
Analyzing the Chinese characters used to write “tojinna” suggests that it could have been introduced much earlier. The first character of the word refers specifically to the Tang Dynasty of China, which prevailed from early 7th to the early 10th centuries.
Tang civilization wielded tremendous influence on its neighbors. Japan adopted Tang governance structures and the Chinese writing system. It adapted Chinese customs and culture. And it embraced Buddhism, which had spread to China around the first century AD. Brassica rapas are thought to have arrived in China around this same time, helped along by “Silk Road” trade routes linking the East and the West.
So it might not be a stretch to imagine that Nagasaki Chinese cabbage made its way across the East China Sea a thousand years before the Tokugawa shogunate presided over a peaceful, though isolationist, era between the early 17th and the mid 19th centuries.
In any case, the tender, sweet and juicy green became a treasured local specialty around Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu.
According to the Slow Food Ark of Taste, different types of tojinna were grown around the region. An early variety was cultivated near the mountains, and a late variety grown on the plains. While the early variety had to be harvested by December, late Nagasaki Chinese Cabbage, with its large, deep green crinkled leaves and open heart, resists the cold and could be harvested well into winter. Both varieties are very tender, particularly when young. The first leaves are often pickled, boiled for ohitashi or used to make a frittata.
This Brassica narinosa has chromosomal cousins that may sound familiar, including Pak choi, Curled Mustard, Komatsuna, and tatsoi. Its susceptibility to crossbreeding, however, made protecting the integrity of Nagasaki Chinese cabbage a challenge. But farmers around Nagasaki have been carefully doing it for centuries, aided by the region’s unique topography.
Nagasaki farmers boast that the leaves have a unique flavor, one softer than ordinary Chinese cabbage. They’re often used in simmered hotpot dishes, rice dumplings, and pickled for tsukemono, a staple use of Chinese cabbage. The finely chopped cabbage leaves are combined with cucumbers and carrots, then lacto-fermented for over 100 days, (though recipes also abound for making quick pickled cabbage in a day or two). The salted, yellowish pickles are a delicious complement to fried foods such as tonkatsu, as well as rice meat bowls, or for a quick snack with steamed rice and tea.
But changing tastes — an influence of the western diet — and a decline in the number of growers — emerged as threats to this historically significant variety. Thankfully, seed savers and other heirloom vegetable enthusiasts are working to preserve it. For example, school lunchrooms in Nagasaki City serve traditional vegetables, including the Chinese cabbage. And a consortium of growers delivers fresh tojinna to markets and shops around Nagasaki each day.
As a nation of islands with limited land, Japan has always been a place of endless adaptation and curation, making all things uniquely Japanese. Nagasaki Chinese cabbage is no exception!
Find Nagasaki Chinese cabbage seeds here.