Many people disparage cabbage as a vegetable. But Sultan Selim III penned an ode to it: “What pleasure is the feast without the cabbage?”

Cabbage heads the list of nutritious foodstuffs bestowed on us by Mother Nature. What’s more, it’s chock full of vitamins, a virtual powerhouse of beneficial substances that is holding its own in today’s cuisines thanks to the hundreds of new strains developed since man originally discovered it.

We know that until they discovered fire and how to use it, humans managed to survive merely by gathering and eating the fruits and nuts that grew naturally in the environment. Following this ‘gathering’ stage, man began to experiment with the fruits and vegetables he found around him, to plant and grow them himself. As a result of these activities, which we call agriculture, a new period known as ‘agrarian society’ emerged in the development of the human race. Thanks to agriculture people learned from experience what each vegetable was good for. People who settled in the cold regions, for example, and were therefore less resistant to disease, soon discovered that cabbage was an effective antidote against maladies of all kinds.

Today the importance of natural foodstuffs that can be consumed directly without any processing is being appreciated once again. Technological development and rapid population growth have meant that people around the world have more or less the same diet now. This in turn has deprived them of the diversity afforded by nature. What’s more, eager to satisfy their hunger faster and at lower cost, people have also begun turning away from the resources nature offers. Once accorded pride of place, vegetables are now grown almost exclusively in hothouses and often merely as ‘garnishes’. Not only that but the long-awaited special winter dishes that were once prepared only in the cold season since that’s when their main ingredient was available have been relegated to the dustbin of memory.

While not forgotten, cabbage, which is known as ‘kelem’ in many parts of Turkey, is no longer used as often as it deserves. Wild cabbage first appeared over a broad area extending from the Mediterranean coast to Northern Europe. Realizing its merits, mankind generated some 400 new strains from the wild variety. The richest states of their day, such as the Eastern Roman and Ottoman empires, made wide use of cabbage both for nutrition and in the treatment of disease. Indeed, in Roman times Cato the Elder said that the reason the Romans had been physicians for centuries was that they knew the benefits of cabbage!

An inventory of the palace kitchens cited in Prof. Dr. Süheyl Ünver’s book, ‘Dishes of the Period of Mehmed the Conqueror’, reveals that cabbage was actually the vegetable most frequently consumed in the palace. Indeed Sultan Selim III even penned a panegyric to it. Even just the last line of his poem, as published in Feyzi Halıcı’s monthly ‘Çağrı’, suffices to show how much the sultan adored this vegetable. “What pleaure is the feast without the cabbage?”

But cabbage also had its detractors of course. And farmers didn’t allow cabbage near their fields for fear that its naturally occurring sulfurous odor would be wafted to the grape arbors or bee hives. So adamant were they on this point that the Roman nobleman Lucullus insisted that cabbage not be served on the tables of the nobility purely because of its smell. 

There is also an ironic anecdote in the history of cabbage. Rumor has it that the ancient philosopher Diogenes ate cabbage every day on the recommendation of the mathematician Pythagoras. Aristippus the philosopher on the other hand did not allow cabbage into his kitchen. But history records that while Diogenes lived to the ripe old age of 90, Aristippus died when he was only 40. Of course, we don’t know if cabbage played a role. But the fact that cabbage was belittled by so many despite being a staple on the menu of two illustrious palaces like those of the Romans and the Ottomans leads us to believe that it will soon reclaim the high position it deserves and that people in the know are going to rediscover this wonderful vegetable, which was their ancestors’ mainstay and life support.

Cole Slaw
1/2 white cabbage
2 apples
2 tbsp mayonnaise
4 tbsp yoghurt
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
juice of half a lemon

Separate and wash the white cabbage leaves, then chop very fine. Peel and grate the apples. Place the yoghurt, mayonnaise, olive oil, lemon juice and seasonings in a mixing bowl and whisk. Add the chopped cabbage and grated apple, mix well and transfer to a serving dish.

Whole Stuffed Cabbage
1 medium white cabbage
300 g lamb stew meat, chopped
3 onions, finely chopped
1/4 tsp tomato sauce
70 g rice
4 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 bunch finely chopped parsley
1/4 bunch finely chopped dill
1/4 bunch finely chopped mint

Chop the onions fine. Then, stirring constantly, brown in butter until they begin to color. Add the meat and brown for 5-6 minutes, then add the tomato sauce. Continue stirring for 3-4 minutes and add the water. When the meat is almost done, add the rice. In another pot, let the whole cabbage stand for 3-4 minutes in boiling water. Then plunge into cold water. Strain the water from the cabbage and place on a baking tray. Open the leaves and, without separating them, remove the core. Add the mint, parsley and dill to the filling ingredients. Fill the cabbage and close up the leaves. Wrap in wax paper and bake in a 150 C. oven for 45 minutes. Remove the wax paper and bake another 4-5 minutes until golden brown. Serve hot.

Lamb Shanks with Cabbage
For the ‘terbiye’ (egg-lemon sauce):
1 egg yolk
juice of half a lemon
1 tbsp flour
1/2 cup water
Beat all ingredients together
well and strain.

Chop the onions fine and brown in oil until they just begin to color. Boil the lamb shanks, then brown and add water. When the meat is almost done, add the vegetables. When the vegetables are done, add the ‘terbiye’ sauce, stirring constantly. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.

Cold Cabbage Leaf Dolma with Mussels
1 white cabbage
(the kind used for dolma)
20 mussels, shelled
Filling for cold dolma
1 cup virgin olive oil
1 cup water
1 tbsp salt
juice of half a lemon

In a pot, boil the cabbage in hot, salted water. Plunge into cold water and cut into pieces. Mix the shelled mussels with the cold dolma filing, stuff the cabbage leaves and wrap. Line the bottom of a large pot with carrots, onion, parsley stems and lemon slices and arrange the dolmas on top. Add the virgin olive oil, salt, lemon juice and water. Cook over a low fire for 30 minutes. Cool and serve.

Savory Meat-stuffed Cabbage
1 white cabbage
200 g ground beef
1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 bunch parsley
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
150 g milk
3 eggs
70 g butter

For the filling: Brown the ground meat with the finely chopped onion and add the parsley.
For the sauce: Mix the milk, eggs and oil together and beat well.
Boil the cabbage and separate the leaves. Oil a baking tray and arrange a layer of cabbage leaves on it. Drizzle the sauce over them and continue the arrangement with more leaves. When you’ve used half the leaves, sprinkle the cabbage leaves with the ground meat mixture and continue adding leaves alternately with sauce. When you have added the last layer, drizzle with oil and place in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes at 160 C. and serve hot.