Small, Good Things: Of Cabbages and Kings



The first day of 2021 felt less like the turning of a page than a defiant continuation of 2020. Little did we suspect that in less than a week it would seem like an escalation.

In times like these, comfort cooking is called for. But the definition of comfort food in the past nine months has been stretched well beyond Good Housekeeping or The Joy of Cooking standards.

As a South Louisiana native and Hudson Valley resident, the cooking of the Indian subcontinent has never before registered with me as an option in that department. But when my “pod” invited me over for an intimate, socially distanced dinner of John’s special Butter Chicken, after I had been home alone on Christmas and New Year’s Day, the reality of non-Zoom fellowship was the comfort I needed.

Asked to contribute a vegetable side, I drew a blank and asked for suggestions. John almost immediately fired back with a basic Indian stir-fried curry cabbage suggestion that sounded easy. I was already to go with the basics until a slight familiarity with Madhur Jaffrey’s landmark Indian cookbooks reminded me of the small, good things of Indian cooking —simple spices and techniques — that might elevate it to a comforting level.

Sure enough, the recipe starts with a tarka: whole spices (in this typical case, mustard seeds and whole cumin seeds and curry leaves) fried or tempered briefly in oil, a common beginning to many Indian recipes. 

Sliced onions and garlic are added to this front-load of flavor to further season the oil before the addition of cabbage. Curry powder (a turmeric-based mix sporting “hotter” spices, such as cumin and pepper) and garam masala (a “sweet” mix leaning toward more cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg) are incorporated and the cabbage is cooked until crunchy-tender.

This would be fine enough and you could just stop there, but Z., my staunchest culinary adviser and encyclopedic recipe scout, directed me to a recent book, My Two Souths, by Asha Gomez, an Indian chef transplanted to Atlanta, who made an admirable leap of combining the cuisines of her Indian subcontinent with the foodways of her adopted Deep South home.

Gomez’s take on a cabbage stir-fry is similar right up to that last step, when she adds a final tarka of fragrant garlic and coconut, the latter being a prime signifier in a dish known as thoren, which is the comfort food of the vegetarian-heavy cuisine of the southern India state Kerala. Here, I’ve jimmied her tarka by including a little fresh ginger heat.

It may sound complicated, but it’s not. The prep work takes no time and the rest is strictly process and requires little attention. Let the spices do the work. Gomez notes that thoren can just as effectively be made with sliced carrots, romanesco, okra, green tomatoes or even summer squash. I have in mind a version with Brussels sprouts or any other hearty brassica. It’s cabbage for kings.

Cabbage Thoren

Serves 6

  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seeds (black or brown preferred; yellow will do)
  • 10 fresh curry leaves or 2 dried bay leaves*
  • 1 red onion, sliced thin
  • 4 to 6 cloves garlic sliced thin
  • 1 small head of cabbage (red, green or half-and-half), sliced thin (about 6 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 1 tablespoon garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 to 6 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 6 coins of fresh, peeled ginger, smashed and roughly chopped
  • 3/4 to 1 cup grated coconut**
  • 1/4 to ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1. Heat oil over medium high in a large skillet or Dutch oven (with lid). Add mustard seeds and stir until they begin to pop. Add cumin seeds and curry or bay leaves and stir until fragrant. add sliced red onion and garlic and sauce for 1 to 2 minutes. 

2. Add cabbage and stir for a minute or so to coat in oil and seasonings. Add curry powder, garam masala and salt and cook stirring for another couple of minutes. Add ½ cup water, lower heat to medium, cover and cook for 5 to 6 minutes.

3. While cabbage cooks, pulse garlic, ginger, coconut, pepper flakes and 1/4 cup water (or coconut milk if you have it on hand) to a paste. When cabbage is tender and water has evaporated, remove lid and discard curry/bay leaves. Add the garlic-ginger-coconut paste and cook another minute or so. Correct seasoning and serve over basmati rice for a vegetarian entree or as a vegetable side.

* Fresh curry leaves are seasonally available at Saraswati on Route 9 in Wappingers Falls.

** You could grate your own coconut, but Bob’s Red Mill unsweetened shredded coconut, reconstituted in hot water for 20 minutes and drained, will substitute.

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