Karl’s Asian Cabbage Rolls

When my family does not issue me a challenge—a new cuisine, a particular meat, or an untried vegetable to explore—I sometimes struggle to come up with something new for my Sunday dinners. This dish came up in a roundabout way. Jan, my wife, mentioned the other day about how she really liked fresh pea soup. You might ask, “How does pea soup turn into Asian cabbage rolls?”

Karl’s Asian Cabbage Rolls

Karl’s Asian Cabbage Rolls

Pea soup by itself is not a meal. Searching online for main or side dishes to fill out the menu lead me to cabbage rolls—this is a classic German and Eastern European dish. However, Jan does not like cabbage rolls.

Note: Both my mother, Claudia, and Jan’s mother cooked German food as we were growing up. In some ways their cooking was identical—overcooking spinach for example.  In other respects, my mother was the better cook. I grew up mostly liking German food—with the exception of liver soup, my father’s favorite. Jan, on the other hand, can barely tolerate German food, even when it is done right.

So now, I had the idea of cabbage rolls stuck in my head. How could I make a cabbage role that Jan would like? Jan really likes Chinese food. What if I made a role with Asian ingredients?

A European cabbage rolls is basically a small beef meatloaf, wrapped in a green cabbage leaf, and then smothered in a savory tomato sauce. Napa cabbage was an obvious choice for the wrapper, but what about the filling and the sauce. Jan especially likes jiaozi stuffed with pork and Chinese chive. Everyone, in my family, also likes the spicy sauce I use for my chicken and pan fried noodles.

Note: Homemade jiaozi is a bit of a production number. While the prep work is easy enough, the hand rolling of dozens—if not hundreds—of little dough wrappers and then filling them with a small amount of meat mixture is not the work of a single person. When we were in China, people would come to their friend’s home for a jiaozi party—everyone pitching in, to roll out and then fill the wrappers, boil them, and then eat them—the embodiment of the Chinese concept of rènao 热闹, a hot/noisy/ lively atmosphere, like at a good restaurant. The hot steam from the boiling pot, the noisy, happy chatter of good friends making and eating food together—such a picture!

Applying this European cooking technique to Asian food seemed just the ticket. A large cabbage leaf takes a lot more of the meat mixture than a tiny, thin, piece of dough—simplifying the labor involved. Finally, covering the rolls with a spicy hoisin sauce sounded like just the thing to make a dinner.

A Chinese meal is almost never just one dish. At the very least you would have rice—or it would not be a meal, but just a snack. To go with my cabbage rolls, I made confetti rice, a mushroom dish, and a vegetable side dish.

Note: Most of these recipes are made with an extra amount of ginger. My daughter, Myr, has been sick lately and she requested additional ginger for its medicinal benefits.

Karl’s Asian Cabbage Rolls


Spicy Hoisin Sauce

⅓ cup hoisin sauce
2 Tbs. chili garlic sauce
2 Tbs. low sodium light soy sauce
1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
1 Tbs. Shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp. dark sesame oil
½ inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
1 Tbs. fresh ginger, grated (about a ½  inch knob)


1½ lb. pork, minced or coarsely ground
1 cup Chinese chives, chopped finely
½ cup green onions, finely sliced
6 large garlic cloves, crushed
2 Tbs. fresh ginger, grated (about a 1½  inch knob)
3 Tbs. low sodium light soy sauce
1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
1 Tbs. Shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp. dark sesame oil
¼ tsp. baking soda

12-14 large napa cabbage leaves


1. Put the sauce ingredients into a small bowl, mix well, and set it aside to meld.

2. Put the filling ingredients into a bowl and mix them together well.

Tip: The baking soda changes the Ph of the meat and keeps it more tender and moist.

3. Let the filling mixture for rest for 15-20 minutes.

4. Carefully pull the cabbage leaves from the base.

Tip: Try not to tear the fragile leafy tops.

Note: I trim the ragged bottom edge, but that is not really necessary.

5. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Tip: Have a pair of tongs, a large bowl of cold water, and a lipped tray ready to hand.

Note: Fresh napa cabbage leaves are too inflexible to fold easily without breaking. The leafy top is very brittle and the thicker base is too stiff to roll. The leaves must be  softened first. You will be blanching the cabbage leaves, cooling them in the cold water and then placing the wet leaves in the tray to drain.

6. Take 3-4 cabbage leaves at a time by the leafy edges and dip their thick bases into the boiling water.

Tip: Keep hold of the leaves while you are softening the bases.

Note: The thick base takes longer to blanch that the thin leafy parts.

7. After 15-20 seconds, push the thick end of the leaves into the bottom edge of the pot.

Note: This is to check how soft the base of the leaves have become. If the leaves are still firm, the thick bases will only “bow” when pushed against the edge of the pot. When they have blanched sufficiently they will fold.

8. When the bases have become soft, push the leafy ends of the leaves into the hot water.

Tip: Use the tongs to push the leaves under the hot water.

9. Blanch the leaves for another 5-7 seconds.

10. Use the tongs to pick up the leaves by their thick ends and “shock” them in the cold water.

Tip: If you grab the leaves by the leafy edge it would tear them to pieces.

Note: Do not discard the hot water at this point. If you have left over filling, you may need to blanch one or two more leaves.

11. Put the leaves on a lipped tray to drain off the excess water.

12. Pam a large, attractive casserole and spread two tablespoon of the sauce over the bottom.

13. Lay one leave of cabbage on a clean cooking mat with the leafy edge towards you.

14. Put ¼-⅓ cup of the meat mixture on the leafy edge.

Tip: How much filling depends on the size of your leaves.

15. Roll the leaf around the meat, tucking in the outer edges and you go.

Tip: If you have ever rolled a burrito, it is exactly the same concept.

16. Lay the cabbage roll—open edge down—at one end of the casserole.

17. Continue filling and rolling the leaves until your meat is gone and your casserole is filled.


Rolled and Filled Cabbage Leaves

Rolled and Filled Cabbage Leaves

18. Spoon the rest of the sauce over the cabbage rolls.

Tip: At this point, you may store the casserole in the refrigerator for an hour or two.

19. Put the casserole in a preheated 350º F oven and bake for 30-40 minutes.

Tip: Cook to an internal temperature of 140º F.

20. Remove the casserole from the oven and tent with foil.

21. Let the cabbage rolls rest for 10 minutes.

22. Serve warm with steamed rice on the side.


Filed under California Fusion, Chinese-American, Main Dishes, Pork, Sauces and Spices, Vegetables

5 responses to “Karl’s Asian Cabbage Rolls

  1. An Asian cabbage roll makes sense! It’s like an unfried egg roll. Yours look so beautiful and tasty.

  2. Pingback: Karl’s Asian Cabbage Rolls – The Daily Press

  3. Pingback: Karl’s Confetti Rice | Jabberwocky Stew

  4. Pingback: Karl’s Oyster Mushrooms in Oyster Sauce | Jabberwocky Stew

  5. Pingback: Karl’s Chinese Chive Stem and Cucumbers Stir Fry | Jabberwocky Stew

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