An Ode to Cabbage,
the grandmother of vegetables
Some of my earliest memories of food are the ones of pickled cucumbers and cabbage. Especially the pungent smell when preserved in brine is deeply ingrained in my emotional memory. I connect it with cold but cozy days, warm meals and family gatherings.
Cabbage is cheap and nutritious, feeds many, is easy to store, grows fast and in abundance, thrives in most environments and delivers an impressive amount of vitamins: a marvel of versatility that brings a broad palette of delicious flavors to the table. And yet this humble vegetable hasn’t been valued and celebrated enough.
Cabbage has been grown longer than most vegetables on record: more than 6.000 years, in many different varieties and flavors. While the exact origins are difficult to be traced, it can be speculated that it descended from its uncultivated relative, the wild cabbage, or wild mustard plant. Since the evolutionary history is understudied, the role of the weedy, cabbage-like plants along mediterranean coastlines is not fully clear in the domestication process. Given the uncertainty surrounding its wild relatives and herbaceous populations, researchers have proposed numerous hypotheses: while some see the wild populations as the progenitor species, others identify them as plants that escaped cultivation.
"Greek legend has it that cabbage sprung from where Zeus’ sweat hit the ground."
Although it’s not very likely that cabbage formed from sweat—due to its understudied evolutionary history and origins of domestication; all we have are the earliest literary references of kale and cabbage by Greek and Roman writers dating from 2500 years ago. Romans described cabbage as a table luxury. Its juice was dribbled into sore eyes or packed onto aching muscles to ease pain. Some were even convinced that eating cabbage would avoid drunkenness and hangovers – it was believed that cabbages and grapevines were inimical and shouldn’t be grown in close proximity. And Greek tales say the philosopher Diogenes ate nothing but cabbage until he died at the age of 90.
Based on archaeological finds the oldest cultivation might have taken place more than 3300 years ago in North West Syria. Other species like the Brassica rapa might have played a role in Silk Road trade routes. Brassice oleracea might have evolved later into Chinese white kale by the period of the Tang Dynasty (618–907).
Although most archaeological finds are of seeds; there are documented pottery remnants dating from 900 years ago that contain lipids of Brassica leaf waxes that researchers attribute to the boiling of Brassica oleracea leaves.
"Domestication is not a single event, but a series of events characterized by continuous gene flow between wild and cultivated populations".
Researching the evolutionary context of crops is important: by identifying wild relatives, finding connections between genotype and phenotype and how they respond and adapt to past, present and future changes in their environment can help to provide important insights for further conservation and cultivation methods and also crop improvement. It is assumed that gene flow from wild to cultivated populations contributed to the diverse compositions during domestication, and vice versa.
By the Middle Ages, cabbage had become a staple in many parts of Europe. It was long seen as the food for poor people and for example mentioned in the anonymous chronicle "Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris" (1420):
"poor people ate no bread, nothing but cabbages and turnips and such dishes, without any bread or salt"
in times when people were dying of hunger because nothing else was affordable. Nowadays cabbages are regarded as one of the most nutritional vegetables with high concentrations of fiber, vitamins and iron.
The Cabbage Family
Brassica is the genus for members of the cabbage and mustard family (Brassicaceae). Especially the cultivated species Brassica oleracea plays an important role in global food systems and horticulture with its enormous diversity of common cultivars and agricultural crops (Oleracea lat. for “vegetable“ or „herbal"). Various parts of the Brassica plant emerged over thousands of years through selection for different traits forming the many varieties (400! and all unique botanical types) we know today: cabbage, savoy cabbage, kale, broccoli, broccolini, cauliflower, bok choy, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, gai lan and turnip. But also mustard, rapeseed, canola, radish, horseradish, wasabi and watercress are all part of the Brassica family of sometimes yellow, sometimes white flowering plants. Selection for leaves led to kale and collard greens, the terminal buds to cabbage, lateral buds to Brussels sprouts, selection for bigger stems to kohlrabi, and the flowers resulted to broccoli, cauliflower and non edible varieties made to be admired – ornamental cabbage.
The small color spectrum includes a beautiful range of green and purple tones. Everything is edible, from the leaves (kale, cabbage), stalks (kohlrabi), buds (Brussels sprouts) to the flowers (cauliflower, broccoli).
Cultivation and Care
Cultivation is a long journey of patience, time, care, maintenance – and growth. Encouraging the life forms within the soil (that is home to billions of important microorganisms such as bacteria, algae, and mold) to thrive and creating new variations takes many trials and errors and a lot of effort, until eventually a new successful variety is born. But thanks to the persistence and faith of farmers and gardeners who had put all this work in to create healthy crops we can now scoop from a broad and beautiful palette of vegetable varieties. Only by passing down recipes and using these precious ingredients that farmers grow so patiently we continue to let the legacy thrive.
Selecting for a fatter stem resulted in a new variation: turnip cabbage, the kohlrabi (the german word Kohl derived from the latin word caulis for cabbage, and Rübe / Rabi from the word rapum, for turnip, even though unlike turnips, it grows above the ground). Despite the common name, kohlrabi does not belong to the same species as a turnip, although both are part of the Brassica family. The taste and texture is similar to broccoli stems and the leafy greens can also be eaten and prepared similar as collard greens or kale.
During the 16th century, gardeners developed the savoy cabbage with its firm, structured, deep emerald green leaves.
Further selection in edible buds emerged to miniature cabbages: Brussels sprouts. The buds form in a dense arrangement along the stem, with sprouts, similar to tiny heads of cabbage that grow green or come in purple as Ruby Crunch, a sweeter hybrid of red/purple cabbage and regular Brussels sprouts.
Broccoli was created from a kale ancestor by selecting the larger flower clusters, which are harvested before they bloom. The fleshy flower heads are arranged in a tree-like structure, branching out from a thick stalk. Its name, the plural from broccolo means "the flowering crests of a cabbage", derived from brocco, italian for „sprout“. The dense cluster of flower buds is typically deep emerald green but may be tinged with purple accents. Cauliflower was later developed from one of hundreds of broccoli varieties.
Cabbage is a staple food in many parts of the world. Yet many don’t like the pungent smell it emits when cooked (or overcooked, only then it breaks down its sulfur compounds and starts to smell a certain way).
From the field to the plate
There are plenty of simple cooking methods that can highlight the quality of the vegetable and let it shine. Straight from the field all parts from the the flowers, stalk, and tender leaves can be eaten raw or steamed, cooked, pickled, grilled, baked, braised, (stir) fried, served as coleslaw, soup topping, cabbage rolls, spring rolls, stuffed in a dumpling, be transformed into Sauerkraut, funky cabbage juice, or enjoyed plain, freshly sliced. It can also be complemented by caraway, celery or dill (seeds), fresh chilies, garlic, lemon juice or herb-infused oils.
Every year around 70 million tonnes of cabbage and other species of brassicas are produced, almost half of it in China, even though Russia has the highest annual consumption at 20 kg of cabbage per person. Cabbage usually weights around 1 kg yet the heaviest ever measured came with 60x its average weight.
There are various ways how dishes get introduced and adapted to other cuisines. One of the most popular Turkish dishes for example, rice and meat-filled cabbage wraps, reached all over the Balkans as Sarma and as far as to Sweden as Kåldomar. Swedish King Charles XII got to like the dish while in exile in Moldavia, at that time part of the Ottoman Empire. When he made his way back home, he was followed by Ottoman creditors and their kitchen staff who were waiting to get their lend money back. They stayed in Stockholm between 1716 and 1732, a long time to wait for money. But in the meantime the cabbage rolls were introduced to the local cuisine. And not only there.
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