Why I love cabbage

Dec 23, 2020
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“The only meals they could afford were…cabbage for lunch, and cabbage soup for supper.” - Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Cabbage has a catastrophic branding problem. My earliest recollection of the vegetable is in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where the Bucket family is so poor the only food they can afford is measly cabbage soup. In the 2005 film adaptation of the novel, Mrs. Bucket, played by Helena Bonham Carter, states: “Oh well, nothing goes better with cabbage than cabbage."

The depiction of cabbage as as an unappetizing food is a recurring theme throughout literature and popular culture. In George Orwell’s 1984, the scent of cabbage conjures a sense of decay and despair: “the hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.” In the popular Nickelodeon show, Avatar the Last Airbender, the main character, Aang, repeatedly destroys the stock of a cabbage peddler who comically shouts, “my cabbages!” This portrayal of cabbage serves as comic relief for the show, but also presents the vegetable as a prop, something worthy of destruction and unsuitable for eating.

Despite cabbage’s decidedly un-sexy characterization in literature and pop culture, there is so much more to it than meets the eye. Cabbage is abundant, affordable, and impressive in terms of shelf-life. It can be eaten raw or cooked and plays a critical role in a variety of cuisines, from Japanese Okonomiyaki to German sauerkraut, Irish colcannon, or American coleslaw.

Growing up in a Japanese-American household, cabbage was part of our diet, but certainly not the centerfold. I was not aware that some of my favorite dishes like Gyoza and corned-beef stew prominently featured the vegetable. Cabbage wasn’t in the name, so could it really be in there stinking things up?

Other brassicas have had their time in the sun, why not cabbage?

In my teens, America went through a big brussels sprouts phase. These mini cabbages were absolutely everywhere and everyone was obsessed. You’d find them on nearly every menu that claimed American roots - roasted with balsamic glaze (RIP balsamic glaze), made into a gratin, sautéed in bacon fat, fried and topped with all sorts of sickly sweet sauces and glazes - name a preparation of brussels sprouts and I can guarantee it was served in American restaurants between 2000 and 2010.

Despite brussels’ brief climb to A-list status, it’s humble cousin cabbage remained in the shadows. Perhaps its not-as-cute size held it back? Or was it the centuries of negative press? For now, cabbage remains a sleeper hit for most, but you heard it here first - cabbage is the next cauliflower.

I finally “discovered” cabbage when I moved to NYC post-college. I needed to find a way to stretch pennies, and eating pasta for every meal was getting pretty old, not to mention it’s low in fiber. Queen cabbage to the rescue.

Cheap, filling, and long-lasting, I could purchase a head of cabbage for a few dollars and transform it into lots of healthy meals. I could shred her and make some faux-konomiyaki or cabbage slaw (this article’s covergirl). I could throw her into a pot with leftover bits of meat and veggies to bulk up a stew. Or, the true pièce de résistance, slice her into thick steaks and roast them until deeply browned and crisp, dousing them in red wine vinegar and sprinkling handfuls of crunchy nuts, salty cheese, and herbs on top.

My discovery of cabbage was driven by the need to eat healthfully, but transformed into a lifelong love affair. During quar I subscribed to a delightful CSA that provides me with an aggressively large box of vegetables each week, which I view as a personal challenge to consume. In weeks when there is simply too much, cabbage provides a solution. I have made my first ever ferments from my CSA cabbage, (semi-)successful batches of kimchi and sauerkraut. Fermentation is another way that cabbage keeps on giving.

Then, when I started this food blog, one of the most important recipes that I wanted to share was faux-konomiyaki - an ode to cabbage and my biracial Japanese American heritage. Cabbage has been with me through thick and thin. While she may not be everyone’s favorite, she’s undoubtedly delicious and I hope you’ll give her a second shot, even after all of this bad press.