Cabbage does not appear in the Bible, but colewort—an ancestor of cabbage—is mentioned in the Talmud, where it claimed that colewort was healthful and sustaining and included it in “the six things that heal a person.” Today, the humble cabbage is one of the most widely grown vegetables in the world—one that’s been part of Jewish cuisine around the globe for centuries.
Cabbage was much esteemed by the ancient Romans, who thought of it as a panacea and an elixir of youth. Hippocrates prescribed salted, boiled cabbage for colic. Apicus recommended it blanched, then simmered in oil with wine, cumin and coriander seeds, mint, rue, alisander (horse parsley), salt, pepper, and gravy, with the possible addition of sun-dried raisins, almonds, and olives. By the Middle Ages, cabbage had become a staple of the poor, especially in northern Europe. It was also one of the most used vegetables by Ashkenazi Jews, especially in the shtetls.
Jews’ love of cabbage stretches far and wide. Venetian Jews like to prepare verza sofegae—savoy cabbage slowly simmered in olive oil with onion, garlic, and a dash of rosemary. They say the longer it cooks, the better it is. Tuscan Jews make a similar dish, but include tomatoes. From the Baltic to the Black Sea, Ashkenazi Jews have used cabbage to make soups (shchi, kapusniak, kohlsuppe, etc.), to stuff pierogi and piroshki, and of course, to cook cabbage rolls called gefulte kroit, prakas, or holishkes in Yiddish, also known as holubtsi in Ukraine, sarma in Bulgaria and Serbia, tolma in Georgia, and malfoof mahshi in the Middle East. Fillings include ground meat, rice, buckwheat, bread, barley, or sauerkraut.
Many dishes for specific Jewish holidays rely on cabbage, too: Ashkenazi Jews like to serve sweet-and-sour red cabbage with apples for Rosh Hashanah, while Moroccan Jews serve a similar dish alongside couscous. Cabbage is also much appreciated by Hungarian Jews, who use it to make kaposztas koczka—fried cabbage with egg noodles—as well as kaposztas retes (cabbage strudel), which they often prepare for Simchat Torah and for Purim. And in Central Europe, cabbage soup (called koyl mit vasser in Yiddish) is often served on Hoshana Rabbah, because the name of the soup sounded like kol mevaser (literally, a voice announcing)—a prayer said at the end of Sukkot.
There are numerous varieties of cabbage: green, white, pointed, red, savoy, Tuscan black cabbage or cavolo nero, Napa or Chinese cabbage, and kale, to name a few. Green cabbage is usually tightly packed with a heavy head and smooth, dark green outer leaves. It is good for slaw, stir-fries, or long, slow cooking. White cabbage has a compact head and crunchy leaves that make it ideal for stuffing, or for making coleslaw, sauerkraut, or borscht. It is often spiced with caraways seeds, which help prevent flatulence and aids digestion. White cabbage is rich in vitamin C, vitamin K, selenium, potassium, and magnesium. Pointed cabbage is closely related to white cabbage, but with more delicate leaves and a slightly sweeter taste.
Red cabbage is usually pickled, braised, roasted, or eaten raw in salads. Its dark reddish or purple leaves can change color when cooking, due to a pigment called anthocyanin, which turns blue in an alkaline environment. Vinegar, lemon juice, wine, or acidic fruit, such as apples, are often added during cooking so it retains its red color. Cavolo nero, which is prized for its long, dark blue-green, curly leaves, is excellent in soups, especially the Tuscan rebollita—meaning “re-boiled,” since the soup is usually prepared the day before it is served. Cavolo nero may also be braised, stewed, steamed, or boiled. Ideally its central stem and core is removed and the leaves are shredded before cooking.
Kale is another member of the cabbage family that has curly dark green or purple leaves. Like cavolo nero, its central core does not form a head. Originally from Anatolia and the eastern Mediterranean, it is closely related to wild cabbage. In the Netherlands it is often used to make boerenkoolstamppot, a dish of mashed potatoes and kale that is traditionally served alongside wurst. Kale also makes a good substitute for cavolo nero, if the latter is unavailable.
Napa or Chinese cabbage has a tightly packed oval head with pale green leaves. It is also known as Peking or celery cabbage on account of its white stalks. Originally from the region around Beijing, it is widely used in Chinese cooking and to make kimchi. Today it is found all over the world.
Whatever the variety, cabbage has many healing qualities. It is said to reduce the risk of colon, breast, and ovarian cancers, as it contains glucosinolates, which, according to the National Cancer Institute, are said to prevent the development of cancer. Cabbage also helps prevent heart disease, stroke, anemia, ulcers, rheumatism, and obesity—possibly because of its high fiber, vitamin, and mineral content. And cabbage is rich in calcium and vitamin K, both of which are essential for the health of your bones.
Its many health benefits are outnumbered only by its many possible preparations, which vary from place to place. But whichever recipe you’re making, cabbage is the vegetable that Jews from all around the world can agree on.
Paola Gavin is a food writer and author of four vegetarian cookbooks including Hazana: Jewish Vegetarian Cooking. Follow her on Instagram @paolagavin and on Twitter @paolagavinfood.