When (and Why) Did Cabbage Become Cool?

published Nov 9, 2016
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(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

No one’s ever accused cabbage of being glamorous, but the leafy brassica is gaining in appeal. You can give partial thanks to kimchi (and, ahem, David Chang), for making the vegetable cooler than it’s ever been.

Over the last few years, the Korean staple of fermented napa cabbage has become part of the country’s culinary vocabulary. Couple that with the rise of kale, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, all cultivars of Brassica oleracea, the same plant that cabbage comes from, and what you have are gateway drugs to a taken-for-granted veg.

Fermentation is so hot right now.

Yes, a newfound appreciation for kimchi gets most of the credit for cabbage being thrust into the limelight. But that’s just one part of it. According to Google, “fermented foods,” “probiotics,” and “sauerkraut” are all search terms on the rise. Trendologist Kara Nielsen, of Kara Nielsen Food Trends, says these trends are reflected in DIY projects, like making lacto-fermented kraut at home, as well as the increased presence of pickled cabbage in grocery stores and at restaurants.

“More ‘live’ sauerkrauts are widely found in the natural grocery chill case and then are put on sandwiches and used as sides,” says Nielsen. “These often have on-trend and potent flavors, like jalapeño, going way beyond a Northern European caraway. I’ve also seen curtido among these sauerkraut styles, which is a Salvadoran version of slaw served on top of pupusas.” Good gut health, a desirable effect of eating fermented foods, is another draw for pickled cabbage enthusiasts, and brassicas’ purported cancer-fighting properties just add to the appeal for health-conscious eaters.

Variety is the spice of life.

As appreciation for cabbage grows, so do the types of cabbage that are available in the marketplace. Melissa’s Produce, the country’s largest distributor of specialty produce, recently introduced two new cabbages to their lineup. In addition to common red and green cabbage, and savoy and napa, there’s now kool cabbage, an adorable (and appropriately named) teardrop-shaped variety originally from Holland, and red napa cabbage, which looks like regular napa with a radicchio dye job.

According to Robert Schuller, public relations director of Melissa’s, steady growth of cabbage sales, “has a lot to do with migration and immigration of Asian clientele to the U.S., and crossing over to mainstream customers to use napa. Even at Latin markets, with soft tacos, cabbage is the preferred green, not iceberg.”

Chefs love it.

Christian Puglisi, of Relae in Copenhagen, Denmark, blackens his cabbage and bathes it in umami-rich kelp butter. Whole-roasted cabbage? That’s a thing, too. It’s on the menu at Marc Vetri’s Lo Spiedo in Philadelphia, and you can make it at home. (Just think about how amazing crisp, charred Brussels sprouts are, and then supersize it.) Not one, but two episodes of Vivian Howard’s PBS show A Chef’s Life have been devoted to cabbage.

Chef Ed Lee’s restaurants have multiple dishes featuring cabbage at all times. “You can salt it, sauté it, slaw it, bury it, ferment it, dry it, purée it, and it takes on a different identity with each technique,” says Lee, owner of 610 Magnolia and Milkwood in Louisville, KY, and Succotash near Washington D.C. “It plays just as nicely on a hot dog as it does with fish sauce and chilis or boiled with ham hocks.” For example, Lee serves kimchi with collards at MilkWood, and pickled tongue with puréed sauerkraut at Succotash.

And even the tiny food trend has taken on cabbage; jelly bean-sized stuffed cabbage, to be exact, using Brussels sprout leaves as the wraps. Watch the video.

How cute? We mean cool! Cabbage is cool — not cute!

Where have you been seeing it pop up?