Mummy, you make the best cabbage sabzi to go with roti and Ammama (grandma) makes the best cabbage curry to go with rasam," said my son after a cabbage sabzi-roti dinner one night. I do not know if my cabbage sabzi qualifies as the best but my mother’s cabbage curry (curry is a common term for all simple stir-fried veggies in Tamil) is the best example of how something so utterly minimalistic can be so sublime.

I have asked her several times how her cabbage curry turns out like a work of art. She always laughs it off. I did again, before starting this column. She offers these tips—choose a tender cabbage with light green leaves and no hard stems running through the leaves and cook it until just done. There’s more. She also does not cover the pan while cooking. “It loses its fresh green colour and too much steam adds water to the pan, making it boil rather than just sauté," she says.

It does surprise me that so much thought goes into the making of a dish that most people would not spare a second thought for. It is always infinitely tougher to cook a simple dish. There’s something to be said about minimalism in cooking, what in MasterChef Australia lingo is “hero-ing the produce", and not masking it behind a number of spices, strong flavours like onion, garlic, ginger, etc. My mum’s cabbage curry heroes cabbage in all its cruciferous glory.

Cabbage does have one terrible thing going for it. Ever walked into a home where cabbage has been boiled, or even worse, pressure-cooked? That stench can knock someone out. Boiling is hands down the worst way to cook a cabbage. If you do have to boil it, use a slow simmer and not a rolling boil. Making the cooking medium acidic by adding vinegar, lemon or wine reduces the formation of trisulfides, which are responsible for the pungent odour.

Here are my favourite ways to cook a cabbage. Sautéing in the pan, like for my mum’s cabbage curry, with no addition of water, is one of them. Deep frying (hello, cabbage pakoras!) is another delicious way to deal with cabbage. Small bits of the cabbage caramelize on frying, lending a rich flavour. Get all “chef-y" by cutting the cabbage into 1-inch thick wedges, avoiding the core. Top with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and place on a baking tray. Roast in a preheated oven (180 degrees Celsius) for 30 minutes or so until slightly charred along the edges. Use this as a centrepiece and build a salad around this. Lightly steamed cabbage leaves turn pliable enough to replace pasta in a healthier version of lasagna or the stuffed cabbage rolls popular all over Eastern Europe.

Cabbage is the favoured vegetable for two of the most popular fermented dishes in the world—sauerkraut and kimchi. In sauerkraut, salt combined with shredded cabbage breaks down the natural sugars to produce lactic acid, which behaves as a preservative. It started off as a way to preserve a vegetable for the colder months, or to carry on long voyages, as a properly prepared and canned sauerkraut can last up to a year at room temperature. Kimchi is a fermented cabbage condiment of Korean origin. Kimchi uses seasonings like red chilli powder, ginger and garlic, resulting in a complex flavour described as funky and intensely umami. So integral is kimchi to Koreans that they even have a special kimchi refrigerator that keeps the fermented kimchi at an optimum temperature to retain its flavour for up to four months.

AMMA’S CABBAGE CURRY

Serves 2-3

Ingredients

3 cups cabbage, finely chopped

1 tbsp sunflower oil

K tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp split husked urad dal

2 dried red chillies

K tsp salt

3 tbsp fresh coconut, grated

Method

Choose a tender cabbage and discard the thick, fibrous stems so that it cooks quickly and uniformly.

Heat the oil in a pan. Fry mustard seeds until they splutter.

Add the urad dal and fry on medium flame until it turns a couple of shades darker, but is not browned.

Fry the dried red chillies for a few seconds. Stir in the chopped cabbage along with salt, and sauté on a medium flame for 1-2 minutes.

Lower the flame, and, stirring occasionally, cook for another 5-6 minutes. Do not cover the pan. The curry is ready when the cabbage is tender but still green, retaining a slight crunch.

Garnish with fresh coconut. Serve with rasam and rice.

INSTANT CABBAGE RAGI UTTAPAM

Instant cabbage ‘ragi uttapam’.
Instant cabbage ‘ragi uttapam’. (Photo: Nandita Iyer)

Makes 9-10

Ingredients

K cup ragi (finger-millet) flour

N cup rice flour

K cup cabbage (packed), finely chopped

3 green chillies, finely chopped

O tsp salt

K cup yogurt

N cup spring onions, finely chopped

1-2 tbsp oil to cook uttapam

Method

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl except the oil. Add just enough water to make a thick batter. Cover and keep aside for 10 minutes. If the batter seems too thick, add a few spoons of water.

Heat a griddle and grease with a few drops of oil. Prepare small uttapams using two tablespoons of batter for each. Make two-three at a time depending on the size of the griddle.

Add a few drops of oil around each uttapam. Turn over after 2-3 minutes and cook the other side similarly.

Serve with coconut chutney or a podi (gunpowder) of choice.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.

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