There’s so much more to cabbage than coleslaw!

Rate this item
(2 votes)

Pak Choy. Picture courtesy Alison AriansPak Choy. Picture courtesy Alison AriansNext time you’re out grocery shopping – grab some cabbage! It’s easy for cabbage to get lost amongst its “sexier” counterparts like curly kale, vibrant beets, Swiss chard and pretty little cauliflower or broccoli florets, but this is a shame because cabbage is packed with goodness, and half the price of other spotlight-grabbing superfoods!

Cabbage – the unsung hero in the kitchen – may also be the most versatile one in your arsenal - you can stuff it, sauté it, stir-fry it and so much more. With the abundance of recipes available online, like traditional slaws, delicious Indian-inspired curries, healthy fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, cabbage deserves to play a leading role in the kitchen.

For the most nutritious and fresh organic cabbage, try growing you own at home in garden beds or pots. It’s easy, economical and most rewarding! Although most gardeners opt for the familiar, round-headed cabbages, today there are hundreds of different varieties to choose from, including flat, round or conical shapes; and tightly packed or loose leaves, in green, white, red and purple colours. Cabbages also vary greatly in size; and with small, medium and large varieties available, there is one suitable for you no matter how small or large your garden may be. These cultivars can also be harvested at different times throughout the year, so you can now grow and enjoy cabbage all year round.

Cabbage 'Copenhagen Market' Picture courtesy 'Copenhagen Market' Picture courtesy wild ancestor of the round-headed cabbage we know today (Brassica oleracea) belongs to the mustard family, like cauliflower and broccoli. It is found in the Mediterranean, Southwestern Europe, and Southern England. The plant is salt tolerant and inhabits rocky cliffs in cool, damp coastal habitats, retaining water and nutrients in its slightly thickened, turgid leaves. It was possibly one of the kales, that the ancient Greeks and Romans held in such high regard. This uncultivated species produces stalks and few leaves and flowers, with little resemblance to the round-head cabbage we purchase in supermarkets today. Though it is difficult to discover exactly when cabbage became a cultivated crop, botanists estimate from a few hundred to a few thousand years BCE.

Cabbage in the form of sauerkraut was a familiar essential at the medieval table, and some historians believe that the idea of pickled cabbage was brought to Europe by the Tartars and developed into sauerkraut by the Celts, who were cultivating the headed variety of cabbage around 200 BCE. The Greeks knew about cabbage at least as early as the 4th century BC; and the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (371 – 287BC), who is also considered the “father of botany”, mentions cabbage in his texts. In Rome, cabbage was considered a luxury and many regarded it as better than all other vegetables. They also used it for medicinal purposes, to treat gout, headaches, and the symptoms of poisonous mushroom ingestion.  Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - AD 79), a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, wrote about seven known variants of cabbage which include; Pompeii, Cumae, and Sabellian cabbage.

Mongolian horsemen learned to preserve cabbage in brine and it became the staple food of the builders of the Great Wall of China in the third century BC, and today, pickled cabbage is still served as an accompaniment to meals in China.  From ancient times to the present day, the Chinese people have harvested and dried cabbage leaves to store for winter use. Rehydrated in water, they came to life again and offer nourishment when added to soups or stir-fries.

Cabbage' Red Jewel' Picture courtesy' Red Jewel' Picture courtesy also knew about cabbages, but the ancient Egyptians didn't use them until the times of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Ptolemaic dynasty controlled Egypt for almost three centuries (305 – 30 BCE), eventually falling to the Romans. Strangely, while they ruled Egypt they never became Egyptian, but isolated themselves in the capital city of Alexandria, a city envisioned by Alexander the Great, and Greek in language and practice.

On the Scandinavian table, from the eighteenth century dating back to the time of the Vikings, cabbage played an important role because of their harsh winters. They prepared their summer harvests with a focus on foods that could be smoked, dried, or salted, and cabbage along with beets, onions, apples, berries and nuts were some of the staples they stored for winter.  Cabbage gained in popularity and soon became a common vegetable throughout Europe; birthing a plethora of simply delicious peasant dishes, like Germanys ‘mainstay’ and hearty meal of cabbage, pork, sausage, lentils and rye bread.

The first round-headed cabbages appeared in England in the 14th century, and mentioned in texts as the food of both the wealthy and the poor. From the 14th to the 19th centuries the lowly cabbage played a central role in the diet of Russian peasants, who sustained themselves with soup made from pickled cabbage, served with rye bread, buckwheat groats, and “kvas”, a mildly fermented beverage Russians still enjoy today.

From Europe, cultivated variants of cabbage spread to Asia and the Americas. It was brought to India by colonizing traders from Portugal somewhere between the 14th and 17th century. Oddly, cabbage was unknown in Japan until the 18th century.

Because of its high amounts of vitamin C, which prevent scurvy, cabbage became a necessity on long ocean journeys, like those undertaken by Captain Cook, and a ship doctor that sailed with him in 1769 used sauerkraut to treat the wounds of sailors and prevent gangrene.

Today, China is the largest producer of cabbage, followed by India and Russia. Russia is also the biggest consumer of this vegetable.

Cabbage 'Chinese' Picture courtesy 'Chinese' Picture courtesy Cabbages

If you’re a little bored with Swiss chard and kale, grab some Chinese cabbages next time you visit the grocery store. As with most greens, they can be steamed, stir-fried, stewed, braised, chopped into salads, and cooked in dumplings or soups. You are sure to enjoy them so much you will want to grow your own, and the good news is - they are as easy to grow as, well, cabbage!

Once considered an exotic ingredient, Chinese cabbage was one of the first Asian vegetables to take root in western cultures, and can now be found in most well-stocked grocery stores across South Africa, and these delectable greens have probably found a place on your table at one time or another in a stir fry, soup or delicious fresh salad.

With more and more varieties available to South African gardeners, we have quite a good selection to choose from. Napa cabbage is the variety we mostly associate with Chinese cabbage, with its delicate, mild flavour. White stem pak choi and bok choy are used extensively for their cabbage flavour, with just a hint of mustard, not forgetting the pretty flat cabbage, tatsoi, with its tender dark green leaves, also with mustard undertones.

Although Chinese cabbages are thought to be a native of China, it is difficult to pinpoint their true origins, as it is difficult to determine exactly which plants are referred to in the ancient writings. Many scholars believe that the various plants we now often group together and call "Chinese Cabbages” are probably the descendants of the wild plant mentioned in the first Chinese treatise dealing with plants, written by Ki Han, of the Chin Dynasty (A.D. 290-307). Some scholars today even suggest that Chinese cabbages may have originated from natural hybridization between a turnip and pak choi.

Chinese cabbage is also listed as a vegetable in a treatise by an Imperial Prince, the fifth son of the first Ming Emperor, Hung Wu (A.D. 1368-1398). At first it was grown principally in the Yangtze River Delta region, until the Ming Dynasty naturalist Li Shizhen popularized it by bringing attention to its medicinal qualities, and promoted the cultivation of these plants throughout China.
From China, the plants spread to Korea, and although they did not show up in Japan until the late 1800's, since then, Japan has produced many delicious hybrids. During the Chinese diaspora in the early 19th Century, Chinese cabbage spread with the people to the rest of Asia, Europe, America and Australia.

Cabbage is one of the most popular vegetables in South Africa and although it is grown country-wide, commercial production is more concentrated in Mpumalanga and the Camperdown and Greytown districts of KwaZulu-Natal.


Cabbage is packed with nutrients that are good for your health, and will banish many beauty woes. It is low in calories and has negligible fat content, making it great for weight-watchers. The juice is rich in anti-ageing properties and considered to be extremely beneficial for the skin. Drinking cabbage juice as well as applying it to the scalp can help prevent hair loss and renders smooth, shiny and lustrous hair. Apart from this, since cabbage is enriched with fibre, it aids in smooth digestion and keeps constipation at bay.
This vegetable is also loaded with antioxidants and Vitamin C which is great for strengthening immunity and fighting diseases. Just half a cup contains almost 50 percent of your daily dose of vitamin C, plus it’s brimming with cancer-fighting, cholesterol-lowering, and ulcer-curing compounds.

Researchers have learned that phytochemicals found in foods of the cabbage family inhibit the growth of breast, stomach, and colon cancer. A University of Utah School of Medicine study on 600 men revealed that those who ate the most cruciferous vegetables like Arugula, Bok choy, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, and Collard greens, had a much lower risk of colon cancer.

A well-known remedy for healing peptic ulcers is drinking cabbage juice. A medical study at Stanford University's School of Medicine gave thirteen ulcer patients five doses a day of cabbage juice. All were healed within seven to ten days with the vitamin U contained in the cabbage juice.

On the side of caution, however, consuming excessive amounts of cabbage may contribute to thyroid problems, so always consult with your physician before starting a home treatment programme, especially for serious ailments.

In the Kitchen:

Cabbage is a vegetable whose culinary expanse is as wide as the ocean - from coleslaw to kimchi - the world has turned this humble vegetable into an exciting list of delicacies. It’s bright and crisp when raw yet it mellows and sweetens the longer it's cooked, so whether it's a quick salad, fuss-free sandwiches, zingy accompaniments, or a full course meal like stuffed cabbage rolls, this super versatile vegetable can be used with almost anything, from a pizza topping to a low-carb noodle substitute!

Various types of cabbage are used in cuisines around the world, with so many recipes – far too many to mention here, so search online for your favourite flavour of the day!

Stuffed cabbage leaves are a favourite throughout Eastern Europe and Turkey as well.  Savoy cabbage with its tender and sweet leaves is the better choice for stuffed cabbage leaves since the leaves are more pliable and stand up better to longer cooking times. A cabbage roll called “Gołąbki” is common in Polish cuisine during the Christmas season and on festive occasions such as weddings. They are made from lightly soft-boiled cabbage leaves, wrapped around minced pork or beef, combined with chopped onions, and rice or barley. They are baked in a casserole dish and usually served with a creamy tomato sauce.

Traditional German "Rotkohl" (sweet/sour red cabbage) is a beloved side dish found in virtually every restaurant and home throughout Germany. It is easy to make and is served on a regular basis with Sunday roasts like "Rouladen" and “Sauerbraten”. Rouladen is a German meat dish usually consisting of pork, onions, mustard and pickles wrapped in thinly sliced beef, and served with delicious gravy. Sauerbraten is a dish consisting of beef that is marinated in vinegar with peppercorns, onions, and other seasonings before cooking. “Surkå” (sour cabbage) is a traditional North-European side dish which is usually served with pork dishes. The cabbage is cut and slowly cooked with caraway and cumin seeds, apple, vinegar, sugar, salt and butter.

There are all sorts of cabbage recipes in Indian cuisine - from North to South, East to West, no matter where you look, you'll find the leafy green stuff. In China and Thailand sliced bok choi or napa cabbage are familiar additions to stir fries and soups; and the Japanese serve pickled cabbage and cucumbers called “Tsukemonoas” as an appetizer. The Koreans get daily benefits from cabbage in the form of “Kimchi” which they eat at nearly every meal. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made of seasoned vegetables and salt. It is also a main ingredient in many other Korean dishes.

Be adventurous when cooking with cabbage, there’s a world of recipes to choose from!
When cooking cabbage, the briefest cooking methods, such as steaming or stir-frying, are best, because, apart from red cabbage, which benefits from long cooking, overcooked cabbage releases sulphur which reminds many people of bad boarding school meals! Red cabbage may turn a greyish blue when cooked in hard water. Cooking in stainless steel pots and adding vinegar, or another acid like lemon when cooking, is used to counteract this.

Cabbage can be stored in a plastic bag and refrigerated for two weeks or longer.

Cabbage 'Baby Green Pandion' Picture courtesy 'Baby Green Pandion' Picture courtesy & Varieties of Cabbage:

All cabbages are good intermediate to cool season crops which grow best in autumn and winter, or early spring and summer, depending on your region. They require full sun and need to grow very quickly, making them greedy feeders; so prepare your beds very well with lots of compost and some organic 2:3:2. Feed your plants every 4 weeks with a balanced fertiliser that is high in nitrogen, and water your crops regularly. Cabbages also resent soil disturbance, so do not dig around them, rather pull the weeds out gently by hand.

Ball-head Cabbages (Brassica oleracea capitata)

Several types of cabbage are grown in South Africa, which are grouped into conical or sugarloaf-headed, ball-headed and drum-headed, based on the shape of the head and the savoy.  They can also be classified according to their colour and growth cycle. The leaves may be green or red, and smooth or wrinkled. New hybrid varieties allow you to sow cabbage virtually throughout the year in South Africa, but May, June and July are not good months for sowing seeds if you live in very cold regions.

Cabbage 'Savoy' Picture courtesy 'Savoy' Picture courtesy Cabbage originated in Italy and is essentially a ball-head cabbage, but the leaves are crinkled rather than smooth. The savoy types are tolerant of cold conditions and are grow in the same way as other winter cabbage, except the cutting season tends to be a little longer.

Ball-head Cabbages are good intermediate to cool season crops which prefer a relatively cool and humid climate, and in very dry atmospheres the heads may not develop as well. The optimum temperatures for growth and development are from 15°C to 20°C, and these cabbages are fairly resistant to frost, surviving temperatures as low as -3°C without damage.

Cabbage can be planted out in early spring for an early summer crop, or in autumn for a winter crop. For success with cabbages it is essential that you purchase the correct varieties for you region and planting season, so consult with your local garden centre for the best regional advice.

For summer crops, sow seeds indoors in seedling trays 6 to 8 weeks before your average last frost date. Keep the soil warm (about 24°C), until germination. Then provide direct sunlight for the plants to prevent them from getting leggy, and keep the temperature around 15°C. When plants are 4 to 6 weeks old, transplant them into the garden approximately 30 to 60cm apart, in rows 45 to 80cm apart (see your seed packet for specific instructions). A closer spacing is generally used for smaller, early varieties, and a wider spacing for larger, late-season varieties.

Seeds can also be sown directly into garden beds as soon as you can work the soil in spring and will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 5°C.  Sow the seeds 1 to 2cm deep, and once germinated, thin them out once or twice, until they are spaced according to the instructions on the seed packet.

For winter crops, transplant or sow directly into garden beds when the temperatures have cooled down considerably, but early enough to establish your plants before the really cold weather arrives.  The advantage of winter crops is that they have a lot less insects to contend with.

Cabbage 'Baby Red Primero. Picture courtesy 'Baby Red Primero. Picture courtesy successive crops plant out seedlings every 3 to 4 weeks

When ball-headed varieties start to mature, avoid watering them overhead, as this can cause blemishes and rot.

Cabbage is ready to harvest when the heads feel firm, but before they start to crack or split. Heavy rains may cause splitting at harvest time, so keep a watchful eye on the weather and your crops at this time. Generally ball-headed cabbages should mature within 10 to 16 weeks after transplanting, depending on the variety.

Did you know that in addition to harvesting the mature heads of the cabbage, you can also harvest a later crop of small heads called “cabbage sprouts?” These delicious sprouts will develop on the stumps of the cut stems if you harvest the head as close to the lower surface of the head as possible, leaving the loose outer leaves intact on the cut stem. Once you have harvested all these cabbage sprouts, pull the stalks out of the ground as they could provide living space for various insects.

Ball-head cabbages will happily store on slatted shelves in a cool, dry and dark larder for months. Slatted shelves allow airflow, or you can hang them in nets. Before storing, remove the loose outer leaves as well as the inevitable slug hiding in there somewhere as well! A quick rub with salt is a good idea to catch any slugs you’ve missed.

TatsoiTatsoiChinese Cabbages

There are two groups of Chinese leaf vegetables: the Pekinensis Group (Napa Cabbage) and the Chinensis Group (Bok Choy). Both have many variations in name, spelling, and scientific classification, especially the bok choy cultivars. This can become quite confusing, so visit your local garden centre for the best advice on which varieties will do best in your region. They are grown at the same time, and in the same way as ordinary cabbage.

Napa cabbage (Brassica rapa)

This delicious cabbage resembles a cos lettuce rather than a cabbage. The heads are less densely packed than ordinary cabbage, with a finer texture and a delicate flavour. Napa cabbage is grown in the same way as ordinary cabbage, but is not hardy to heavy frost, so plant it in a protected part of the vegetable patch. Space your plants 30cm apart in rows about 40cm apart. The outer leaves can be harvested singly, until the main head starts to form.

Bok Choy & Pak Choi (Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis)

This type of Chinese cabbage is known by a myriad of names, which can be quite confusing - In Hong Kong over twenty varieties of bok choy are available! It is also widely popular in the Philippines, Korea and Thailand. These cabbage varieties have a mild but bright cabbage flavour, with a hint of mustard. They do not form heads and are easily recognisable by their bulbous base and distinct green leaves which grow from a central white stalk. Bok choy is well worth trying to grow at home, because it is a very hardy plant. For a continuous supply, sow or plant out small quantities at a time. Transplant the seedlings 10cm apart in rows about 30cm apart.

Chinese Flat-headed Cabbage, Tatsoi (Brassica rapa var. rosularis)

This unusual little cabbage does not grow tall and would make a pretty pot or border plant if combined with winter violas or pansies. It is low-growing, and once mature forms a rosette of dark green leaves in regular, concentric circles. This cabbage is very hardy and easy to grow, germinating and growing extremely quickly. It is tougher and stronger tasting than bok choy, but cooking mellows this. The white stalks are also very tender. Space the plants about 25cm apart, with 30 to 40cm between the rows. Individual leaves can be harvested as required or the whole plant harvested when mature.

Petunia grandiflora 'Burgundy'Petunia grandiflora 'Burgundy'Companion Planting:  

Petunias make excellent companions for cabbage and will act as a tonic plant. Cabbage plants are helped by aromatic plants, which have many blossoms such as dill. Table celery will help prevent grubs; and borage, chamomile or caraway will improve the flavour. Cabbage grows well with broccoli, beetroot, cucumbers, lettuce, leeks, parsley, potato, spinach and, Swiss chard, but does not like growing near tomatoes, onions or garlic.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

If the growth of your plants is stunted and the leaves are wilting and discoloured, look for the maggots of the cabbage fly that eat the roots of the plant, causing them to become black and rotten. Pennyroyal mint, planted underneath cabbages will deter the cabbage fly and keep aphids away. Prevention of cabbage root fly can be achieved by placing a 15cm diameter collar of carpet or underlay around each plant. This will prevent the fly from laying eggs on the soil near the plant. Lots of other materials can also be used, such as thick cardboard or any materials which do not rot too quickly and allow water penetration to the roots of the plant.

Watch out for snails and slugs, as well as the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies and greater cabbage moth caterpillars, which eat holes in the leaves. To deter the cabbage moth plant cabbage with table celery, celeriac, rosemary sage and thyme.

Cabbage can be susceptible to fungal diseases, so to help prevent this, try to water in the morning so the leaves are completely dry by the evening.