Many years ago, I offered to bring sautéed Gujarati cabbage to an Indian potluck lunch. The friend was aghast. Given that cabbage is widely eaten in the state, this came as a surprise. But it also revealed the lowly status of the highly underrated cabbage. Tentative as I was thinking no one is going to touch this (she said to go ahead and bring it), the cabbage was the most popular dish at lunch and people wanted to know if there was more as the bowl emptied out very quickly. The hesitancy was because people did not how to cook the cabbage properly and the notion of it being a “common” vegetable. Somehow the other “common” vegetables, cauliflower and potatoes, are not seen in the same light. Now they want cabbage!
Green cabbage is what is commonly used in our cooking. Tough green cabbage can be very fibrous and does not work well. It is important to be picky. When selecting a cabbage head, make sure it is dense and heavy. Under the coarse green outer leaves look for some thin, shiny, pale, tender leaves peeking through.
This cruciferous vegetable is very versatile and used in steamed bean cakes called dhokla (see note below). It can be finely shredded and used in wheat-based steamed dumplings called muthia. We love our finely chopped cabbage salad. The hardy vegetable is sometimes mixed with mung dal to make the stuffing for kachori. Empanadas are a version of kachori or samosa. Indians are very partial to Mexican food.
We never had lettuce and salad greens growing up. Salads were not part of the diet (some of my Indian friends still think salads are for cows, not humans!). Crispy cabbage was used for a chopped side salad, eaten by the tablespoon, never a bowlful or a plateful. In fact, when a newly arrived young man from Hyderabad encountered a buffet office lunch in New York, he asked about the platters of raw vegetables/salads. He wondered aloud, “People eat all these raw vegetables here? Vegetables are not cooked here?”
Some like their cabbage cooked crispy tender and some like it well cooked. Potatoes and cabbage, peas and cabbage, are basic, everyday vegetable dishes in Indian cuisine. Cabbage is not only economical, it is also packed with nutrition (vitamins B, C, and K), high in fiber, has hardly any calories, and may even have negative calories (calories needed to digest it exceed the calories in the vegetable). To top it all, it is easy to prepare and cook. A head of cabbage goes a long way! Unlike leafy greens, it has more longevity and keeps well for a couple of weeks in the fridge. And it is delicious! In our home, we do not cook the vegetable with potatoes or peas as they are windy (gassy) combinations. The same is true with cauliflower. Both can be gassy vegetables.
Coming back to this recipe, I cook with what is in the fridge. Sometimes it is just finely sliced cabbage. Often a coarsely grated carrot is tossed in and a Cubanelle pepper, or whatever pepper is lying around. Quickly sautéed, it makes a wonderfully satisfying and healthy meal. If there is not enough protein in the meal, thawed, shelled edamame work perfectly.
Cooking for me is not rigid. It is fluid, being very relaxed about it–unless I have cooking burnout. In that case, it is best to take time out for a few days. The fact is I do not like cooking every day, or long hours over the stove, or chopping heaps of vegetables. Bread, cheese, salad, fruit; store-bought soups; take-outs; quick sautés, one-pot khitchdi, are all good for burn out. With our Covid environment and a never-ending winter of snow and ice, it has been helpful to be this way.
Traditionally, vegetables are scooped with a piece of any homemade bread like thin roti, naan, paratha, Gujarati thepla (flavored flatbread cooked with a little oil), puri (deep-fried puffed roti made with whole wheat flour similar to the South American sopapilla). It is like a deconstructed taco with pickle and chutneys on the side. I do not always bother making the breads at home and have come to enjoy warm whole wheat or flax lavash more than the frozen breads available in Indian grocery stores which have corn, soy, or palmolein oils that are terrible for heart health. Last night we had the cabbage with bajri/millet and mung dal khitchdi.
The stir-fried cabbage with khitchdi is a complete meal. The vegetable can also complement a piece of fish or chicken. Eat it like a taco, eat it as roti and vegetable, drizzle it with a sweet and spicy hoisin or plum sauce, or the gochujang marinade, and make it moo shu. It also happen to have no carbs, is gluten-free, and vegan.
I hope your appetite has been whetted and you are ready to honor the cabbage!
2 1/2 tablespoons of oil (canola, grapeseed, peanut, sunflower)
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
finely minced finger chili, serrano, or jalapeno to taste (I like 1 serrano deseeded) optional
1/8 teaspoon asafetida (optional)
3 cups thinly sliced green cabbage (see note)
about 1/2 cup thinly sliced Cubanelle or any other pepper (1 medium Cubanelle)
about 1/2 cup coarsely grated carrot (1 medium carrot)
1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
salt to taste
2 tablespoons rinsed and coarsely chopped cilantro (optional)
- Heat a heavy skillet or sauté pan, add oil, and then mustard seeds. As soon as they start popping a little, add the asafetida and minced chili. This may splatter a bit, so keep the pan partially covered to shield yourself. Do not crowd vegetables when sautéing.
- After the chili cooks for 30 seconds, add all the vegetables, salt, and turmeric. Stir well on medium high heat, uncovered. Keep stirring for 3-5 minutes or until it is the desired texture–the cabbage should not taste raw. It will wilt a bit for crispy tender, and it will wilt and shrink a lot more for a well-cooked texture.
- Add the optional fresh cilantro after switching off the heat. Serve hot or warm.
Note: Buy a small head about the size of your palm, unless you can eat a lot of cabbage. Remove tough outer cabbage leaves. Cut a wedge and rinse it. Pat it dry. Cut the wedge into roughly 1 1/2 to 2 inch wedges. Slice the wedges thinly discarding the hard core and tough stems. This preparation can be done even a day ahead. All the vegetables cam be prepped and stored in a air-tight container in the fridge for a day. Then it just takes 5 minutes to cook before dinner.
Dhokla: These are steamed, light and fluffy savory “cakes” from Gujarat. The base is a lightly fermented batter made with rice or beans–usually mung or yellow gram.
Serves 4 as a side dish. Preparation time: 10 minutes Cooking Time: 5 minutes