The sleeper hit at the dinner party was the cabbage gratin. It’s not that the dish was that much better than the spiced carrots over labneh or the herby pasta our host had also made, it was that it was cabbage. You know, like from cole slaw. But here, in a Bon Appetit recipe with too much cheese and cream and shallots, the leafy green was transformed into a meaty, satisfying dish that we were all sort of shocked we liked so much.
Then again, we could all point to a different cabbage dish we’d recently enjoyed. One person brought up a salad at Mission Chinese of shredded red cabbage drenched in tahini and miso. Another the cabbage with anchovy butter at natural wine bar LaLou. Someone mentioned reading about a White Rabbit pop-up in LA, where the exclusive Russian restaurant served baked cabbage topped with caviar. At a recent dinner at the buzzy new kaiseki restaurant Llama San in New York, I enjoyed a dish of cabbage with miso and nori, and found the restaurant also serves the cabbage-forward okonomiyaki for brunch. And oh my God, have you seen this cabbage lamp?
In America, the most immediate associations with cabbage are either in cole slaw, sauerkraut, boiled alongside corned beef, or the rough purple things you eat around in bagged salad; it also, of course, plays a starring role in Korean kimchi. But more people do appear to be approaching cabbage beyond the side dish, following a familiar path for the dominance of certain vegetables. New American menus from the past decade have seen the “discovery” that diners will actually order brassicas if you top them with enough bacon or cheese or crisp. Kale was celebrated as a “new” fad, though it’s been a soul food staple for generations. Brussels sprouts were rescued from their role as a hated relic of childhood; suddenly, an order of crispy sprouts for the table had everyone in agreement. In some ways, cabbage is just the next in line to the throne, featuring the same tough and toothsome greenery that can be doused in cheese and fat, and without sounding as overplayed as “kale chips with parmesan.”
Cabbage has also been bolstered by the popularity of kimchi, which itself has come from the slow mainstreaming in the U.S. of Korean cuisine and culture through the likes of David Chang, Roy Choi, and honestly BTS. Korean-American restaurants have dotted national Best Of lists in the past few years, all featuring cabbage more prominently than your typical handmade pasta restaurant, and kimchi is an increasingly accessible condiment for non-Koreans. Bon Appetit personality Brad Leone’s video about making it has over three million views, and Alison Roman has a recipe for a kimchi and cheddar omelette. There’s a wellness factor in there, too, as any white person who first ate kimchi two weeks ago seems willing to tell you about its probiotic properties and how good it is for your gut flora. In fact, Korean-American food writer Noah Cho bemoaned the rise of “hipster kimchi” in an essay in Catapult, writing that it’s a food borne of women’s labor, community, and scarcity, a “narrative that gets lost when people are simply subscribing to the latest food trend.”
However cringey, that health halo has added variety to cabbage’s resume. Cabbage rolls and stir-frys are lauded as part of the faddish Keto diet, and searches for “cabbage steaks” have increased since 2013, possibly due to an increased curiosity in vegetarian cooking that mimics meat at least a little bit. Liking leafy greens has become a way to signal health and maturity (or a CSA membership). Some people have gone too far, like the “cabbage juice cult” run by Jillian Epperly, who claims that her cabbage recipe can cure cancer. But overall cabbage slides right into the other thing kale or chard has provided for the past few years, cheese or not — a sheen of wellness with lots of fiber and vitamins, a bite hearty enough to fill you, and cheap enough to put in everything.
But that idea of something delicious coming out of common ingredients is ultimately why cabbage might be showing up on more menus. There are rumblings of another recession on the way, but even if it’s not a full-blown financial crisis, wages are stagnant and Americans increasingly don’t have cash to spare. The last time this happened, food trends turned cozy, from the aforementioned crispy brussels sprouts to braised short ribs to the omnipresent humble luxury of truffle fries.
A decade after the last recession, wellness and Korean cuisine have influenced just how “comfort food” is defined. For every Popeyes chicken sandwich there’s a pot of sustainably sourced heirloom beans, for every lasagna there’s a winter squash Sweetgreen bowl. But the goal is still something delicious and hearty on the (relatively) cheap. Cabbage stands exactly at that intersection — familiar but providing opportunities to “discover” new preparations, filling and nutritious, and available literally everywhere and to everyone. Get ready to be sick of it by 2021.