Cabbage, the gourmet’s delight

The reviled cabbage can sparkle with wit, melt with tenderness, comfort with generosity—all depending on the cook’s attitude

Published : May 14, 2024 20:27 IST - 5 MINS READ

The cabbage has endured five centuries of culinary cruelty on the subcontinent.

The cabbage has endured five centuries of culinary cruelty on the subcontinent. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Cabbage must be the most deeply loathed vegetable on the planet. Condemned as vapid and tasteless, it is the acknowledged saboteur of a home-cooked meal. Bought for bulk and plonked on the kitchen counter with an air of atavistic triumph, it is a leafy cranium, freshly harvested off the enemy.

Caboche meant head in Old English. Yet it is dismissed as a vegetable of very small brain. Cute, but practically ineducable. No matter how craftily seduced, it will not be beguiled out of cabbageness. Plunged in a fiery surge of tomato-onion lava, it will lift up its frills daintily and wade through, untouched. Nuked with turmeric and stir-fried, it retains its glass-eyed detachment. The oil slick slides off in a yellow ooze, leaving the chilli-flecked vegetable bloody but distinctly unbowed. Such epic resistance speaks of prolonged torment. The cabbage has endured five centuries of culinary cruelty on the subcontinent.

If statistics can be trusted, last year we grew 9.95 million tonnes of cabbage. That’s a lot of cabbage to swallow. Why not enjoy it? Isn’t it time we made a truce with this misread scroll of leaves?

Cabbages can be globular, flat-headed, leggy as furled umbrellas or even elegantly conical—the Caraflex is presently having its epicurean moment. But cabbage, any cabbage, is a gourmet vegetable. It can sparkle with wit, melt with tenderness, comfort with generosity—all depending on the cook’s attitude.

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The truly joyous cabbage is rare—a buoyant, tender green noggin flocked with succulent baby curls. Such cabbages may be grown. They may even be glimpsed in the early hours, bursting gunny sacks in the wholesale market. But at the end of their travels, they emerge tousled and dejected from the shopping bag, in a wilt of green-and-yellow melancholy.

The average cabbage is far more pragmatic. Collected, you might say, considering its shiny compactness. It travels well. It meets the knife with crisp repartee. This is the cabbage one hopes for.

A plate showing vegetables, fruits and berries of the garden from The Book of Practical Botany in Word and Image (Lehrbuch der praktischen Pflanzenkunde in Wort und Bild), published in 1886. Don’t miss the cabbage in this hall of fame.

A plate showing vegetables, fruits and berries of the garden from The Book of Practical Botany in Word and Image (Lehrbuch der praktischen Pflanzenkunde in Wort und Bild), published in 1886. Don’t miss the cabbage in this hall of fame. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

But the cabbage fate invariably hands you is phlegmatic, white, thick-veined, more plastic than plant. Solid, almost plutonic in heft, it seems utterly devoid of wit. It slices willingly, but quickly turns on its signature pong. And that’s just the vegetable in the raw.

Cooked, its tragedies multiply.

It chars the instant you look away, and stains the delicate sauté in your skillet with mordant bitterness. It glowers through the rich roil of gravy, sullen and non-biodegradable, chewy as a rag. Boiled, it can make the neighbours suspect a body’s concealed in the basement.

Saviour of humanity

So, if cabbage is such a disaster, why bother?

The answer is historic. The cabbage has been cabbage for 6 million years now, and its documented career as saviour of humanity dates to 6 BCE. Seeds and shreds haven’t survived as archeological proof, nor has it been memorialised as art, but on the northeastern shores of the Mediterranean, Greek poets sang of it. Physicians, never far away from the pantry, dosed their patients with cabbage and took notes. The hoi polloi boiled, oiled and swallowed it as antidote against drunkenness. Did it work? More importantly, was that ancient vegetable the same as the one awaiting my knife?

A painting titled Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber by Juan Sanchez Cotan, c. 1602, at the San Diego Museum of Art.

A painting titled Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber by Juan Sanchez Cotan, c. 1602, at the San Diego Museum of Art. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum (circa 300 BCE) acknowledges only two varieties of cabbage, but wild or cultivated, sweet or bitter, it was wildly popular.

Judge for yourself: cabbage became a swear word. By Krambé! was more emphatic than invoking the dodgy bunch on Mount Olympus. Krambé found its way to immortality in a delicious poem, Batrachomyomachia or The Battle between Frogs and Mice, a satire on the Iliad, composed, perhaps by Homer himself.

Before the battle, the frogs donned reliable armour:

 …their bucklers were

Good thick-leaved cabbage, proof ’gainst any spear.

 Always the sailor’s best bet against scurvy, the cabbage crossed the Mediterranean. Later, the Romans dropped it off in Britain. By the beginning of the Common Era, all Europe breathed a cabbage miasma. Pliny the Elder, that garrulous gossip, describes 12 common varieties and quotes 87 medicinal recipes from earlier cabbage mavens.

The stolid cabbage on the kitchen counter looked sturdy enough to appease the clamour of a waiting-room bursting with sick Romans. Invalids were pathetically trusting and docile in 1 AD, but what about now? When the next epidemic hits obese and diabetic India, could the cabbage save lives?

The classic cabbage-y pong

What’s that you mentioned—a smell?

Really? I pick up my cabbage and inhale.

Nothing.

I take a tentative swipe with my knife and the cabbage eructs… gas.

What happened?

It is the family smell. All cruciferous plants—mustard, radish, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi and counting—have chemicals called glucosinolates packaged neatly within their cells. Also present is an enzyme, myrosinase. As long as the cabbage leads a quiet life, these two chemicals stay apart. But when I cut into the cabbage, myrosinase rips off its wrapping and hammers those glucosinolates. And out tumbles a smelly string of breakdown molecules, the classic cabbage-y pong.

While perhaps not quite the magic molecules the Greeks thought them to be, the chemicals in cabbage regulate inflammation and contribute to a balanced immunity.                   

By Krambé! 

By Krambé!  | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

How do I keep the good stuff in and the stink out? 

Quick, moist heat works best—steam or blanch. A light hand with acid, the merest suggestion of spice, a joyous chiffonade of fresh herbs; ginger rather than chili; milk, not tomato; butter or coconut, but not oil—and you don’t have to be an ancient Greek to relish that poem on your plate.

Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed are surgeons who write together as Kalpish Ratna. They are the authors of Gastronama: The Indian Guide to Eating Right (Roli, 2023).

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