Cabbage, a member of the Brassica oleracea family (which also includes broccoli and cauliflower), is one of the oldest known vegetables. For several thousand years Europeans have revered cabbage for its health-giving properties. By the 18th century, cabbages were being loaded on to ships for use on long voyages. The vitamin C content of cabbage helped stave off scurvy, and had other uses as well, as Captain Cook discovered while on his first voyage. When a violent storm injured 40 of his crew, the ship’s doctor applied compresses of cabbage to wounds to ward off gangrene.
Buying and storing
Because there are many cabbage varieties and different cropping times, cabbage is available year round. Look for cabbage with firm, fresh leaves that are without slime and/or insect damage. Leaves should not be too limp. The cabbage should be solid and firm in the centre. Brussels sprouts should be small and tight, with pale to dark green leaves that have not discoloured to yellow.
Store tightly leaved cabbages (red and green) in a cool place with good air circulation. They can also be kept in the crisper section of the fridge for a couple of weeks. Loose-leaved cabbages (wombok and savoy) should be stored in the crisper section of the fridge for a couple of days maximum and eaten close to purchase.
Did you know?
The alternate name for wombok, ‘Chinese cabbage’, is a confusing one as it tends to include all cabbages originally grown in China and recently introduced to the West. Unlike the other cabbage varieties mentioned here, Chinese cabbages belong to the species Brassica rapa, a group which also includes turnips and spinach mustard. Brassica rapa pekinensis is also called the Chinese cabbage, celery cabbage, napa cabbage, hakusai, wombok and Peking cabbage. Wombok is noticeably different to traditionally round cabbages, being elongated in shape with loosely packed, thin and crinkly leaves.
- Red cabbages are thought to have antiseptic properties which fight infection.
- Salted and fermented cabbage, sauerkraut, is a famous dish from Germany.
- The Greek poet, Homer, mentions Achilles washing cabbages in his epic poem the ‘Iliad’.
- A green cabbage takes 90 to 120 days from seed to harvest.
- Ancient Romans believed cabbage helped cure cancer. Modern research has since shown that foods in the cabbage family inhibit the growth of breast, stomach, and colon cancer due to phytochemicals called indoles.
- Wombok was used in China as early as the 5th century, where it formed an important part of the Chinese population’s winter diet. Many different varieties have been developed since then, resulting in the wombok we know today.
- Raw cabbage contains iron, calcium and potassium. It’s also rich in vitamins C, B1, B2 and B3. Nutritional content varies among the different types of cabbages. It is best to use cabbage fresh or to cook it very quickly, because lengthy cooking tends to substantially reduce nutrient content.