Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cabbage and marriage

One day Amy (my wife) said to me, "In case something ever happens to you, you have to teach me how to make some of the dishes that I really like." In its way, it was a kind of touching statement.

She sometimes says that she used to know how to cook, but since I monopolize the kitchen, she has lost her reason to and her skills have atrophied. This first dish she asked for was this Indian cabbage dish, so I showed her how to make it. It is not so much of a recipe as a basic method that can be varied widely based on your taste and what is at hand. I will first give you one of the ways we make it most often, then list a wide variety of ingredients that can go in at every stage, and then list two common variations. These recipes are more or less derived from Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna Devi's Lord Krishna's Kitchen, but you will find similar recipes in many Indian cookbooks.

Southern-indian style cabbage


  1. Heat sesame oil (they lighter Indian or health food style, not the dark East Asian kind) in a very large skillet, preferably nonstick.
  2. Add about 1 tablespoon of black mustard seeds and cook on medium high until they pop and turn gray. (They will and scatter around your stove like cockroach eggs.)
  3. Add about 1 teaspoon each urad dal and chana dal, and fry until they turn a few shades darker. Don't burn them.
  4. Add 1 or 2 dried red chilis and stir. These won't make it very hot, but will add a very nice flavor.
  5. Add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, stir, and add a small pinch of hing (asafoetida).
  6. Add about 15 fresh curry leaves if available (take them off the stem and rinse them) and a shredded serrano chili, removing the seeds if you don't want it too hot. Stir about 15 seconds.
  7. Add a small to medium head of cored and shredded cabbage. Salt lightly.
  8. Fry on medium to medium-high, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is done. It can be be green and sort of crisp, or softer and browner, depending on your taste. It usually takes 5-15 minutes, depending on factors like heat, and pan size and conductivity. You can also cover the cabbage to speed the cooking a bit. If you are using carrots, add them a bit before the cabbage is done. I usually scrape one or two directly into the pan.
  9. Add juice of 1/2 lemon, and a handful of shredded coconut (fresh, frozen, or, more likely, dried, soaked and drained). Taste for salt and correct seasoning.
  10. Garnish with chopped fresh coriander.


There are options at almost every step of the way. Experiment with the following ingredients. I would say that the only essentials are the fat, the seeds, and the fresh coriander at the end, but you may think otherwise.

Fat: ghee (clarified butter, now even available in some supermarkets), peanut or vegetable oil, sesame oil (the lighter kind, not the roasted East Asian variety) , or mustard oil.

Seeds and whole dry spices: Black mustard seed, cumin seed, panchporan (a bengali mixture of five spices: fennel, fenugreek, mustard, cumin and kalonji), fennel (I generally don't care much for fennel with cabbage), whole dried red chile, urad dal (white skinned split oblong lentil) channa dal (split chick pea). The use of dal as seasonings are typically Southern Indian. These are always added first so that they hot fat can extract their flavors.

Moist seasonings: curry leaves, sliced or diced shallots, onions or garlic, peeled and chopped or granted ginger, chopped or grated tomato, sliced or shredded fresh green chilis (seed them if you don't want them too hot). I tend to add these right after the seeds, though I may hold back on tomato until all the spices are added.

Ground dried spices: turmeric (use sparingly, no more than 1/2 teaspoon), hing (a ground sulfurous resin, use no more than a pinch), coriander, cumin, sugar. It is a good idea to put in turmeric and hing before you put in a large quantity of moist ingredients to take away their raw flavor, so I would put them in after curry leaves or chilis but before other things. If you add sugar early, in carmelizes slightly to good effect.

Other vegetables: carrots shredded into thin, noodle-like ribbons with a vegetable peeler, or green peas. If using fresh, add them to the beginning. Frozen ones should be defrosted under cold water and added toward the end just to warm them.


Finishing touches: lemon juice, fresh lemon juice, fresh grated coconut (or dried coconut soaked in boiling water or zapped until soft), chopped green coriander.

There are very few rules here, so do whatever you like. The one firm one is that you should never use hing and onion/garlic/shallots together. Hing is a sort of garlic substitute used by Vaishnava Hindus who avoid garlic, onions and their cousins. I have heard a variety of reasons for this aversion, but either use one or the other, or leave them out altogether.


Here are two classic combos to start you off:

Bengali style: Use mustard oil, heating it almost to smoking and then letting it cool a bit before reheating and adding either mustard seeds or panchporan. Use turmeric and a bit of sugar, as well as green chili and curry leaves. Finish with lemon, coconut and coriander.

Northern style: Use ghee and cumin seeds. Add red chili, and chopped onion. When the onion is soft, add some garlic, ginger, and a grated tomato if you want.

I know this is a long post, but it is really very easy, and very popular.

Nothing has happened to me, so Amy has not had to make Indian cabbage yet.

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