And as a flavorful, fermented spice, it’s one of the best tools for any cook.

I used to think the most important part of coleslaw—or any other cabbage condiment—was the dressing. The sweetened white vinegar of a real American Southern coleslaw. The squirt of lime juice in the ensalada de col, a staple with tacos de pescado in Baja California. The salty brine that softens the fermented cabbage curtido served across Latin America, a condiment created by Honduran-American food writer Bryan Ford writes is “a reflection of the common ties of many nations”.

But after a recent visit to my sister’s in Tucson, Arizona, where I’ve inhaled many Sonoran-style burritos stuffed only with steak, pink beans, and raw kale that was thinner-sliced ​​than spaghetti, I realized my mistake. The most important ingredient in any cabbage seasoning is the raw cabbage itself.

Those thin shreds of cabbage made my burrito. They had crunchiness, a sweetness, and maybe just a little bit of pungency, not unlike the bitter taste of whole grain mustard, whose brown and yellow seeds are cabbage’s bedfellows. (Both are Brassicas.) They also made it clear to me that raw cabbage is the unsung queen of spices in the southern half of the United States and most of the countries below.

I grew up in the Piedmont area of ​​North Carolina, where hamburgers and chili dogs are traditionally topped with sweet, chopped kale salad, whether you ask or not. I wouldn’t even dream of doing it without biting into some of our famous pulled pork.

How did a distinctly European cold-weather herb, more associated with Poland, Russia and Ireland, become an iconic spice in the warmer parts of that continent?

The same is true in Tucson, where thinly sliced ​​or finely chopped raw cabbage — naked, with no dressing — is usually served de facto on tacos, tostadas, flautas, taquitos, and grilled steak. So it is with the Texans and their brisket, the Salvadorans and their curtido-topped pupusas, and the Hondurans and their chicken with slicesalways served on a huge mountain of shredded cabbage.

(Traditionally, this is almost always kale, sometimes confusingly called white cabbage, though some might mean it.) slightly different varieties head cabbage. These include red cabbage, Chinese cabbage and the flathead Kale usually sold in Asian markets.

You might be curious as to how I thought while eating my burrito, like that definitely European cold-weather crop more commonly associated with Poland, Russia, Ireland, and the Netherlands (where). The name “coleslaw” is said to have originated) became an iconic spice in the warmer parts of this continent.

Almost all nutritionists agree that cabbage had its origins in the loose leaf variety Fertile Crescent, this ancient social science zone that included parts of western Asia and northern Africa. By the early 10th century, trade, colonization, and agricultural experimentation had incorporated cabbage of all kinds into every single cuisine of the Eurasian-African world. But the most important country for Kohl in any discussion of America is Spain, which has built a number of countries Christian missions as part of their larger effort to colonize the western hemisphere.

One of the mission’s clearest goals, beyond religious conversion, was to spread classic European crops throughout North and South America, both to feed the residents and to transform the land itself into New Spain. (Even in the United States, Spanish influence extended far beyond the border states, extending to Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, etc South Carolina.) The missionaries tried to let everything grow inside them food gardensand kale was probably blooming almost everywhere, and for two main reasons.

First, “cabbages are water conserving,” as naturalist author Gary Nabhan (an Arizona resident and poet of the Southwest food terroir) put it in his 2013 book GRowing food in a hotter, drier country. This was a crucial factor before industrial agriculture and still makes cabbage today for an estimated price (not to mention). our drought-stricken future).

The most important country for Kohl in any discussion of America is Spain.

The second reason is that kale is surprisingly heat tolerant for a plant that typically grows in temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. (That’s summer in Ireland, or winter in much of the Deep South, Southwest, and Latin America.) Unlike many traditional cold-weather crops, cabbage seeds germinate when it’s still hot outside, so you can start outdoor growing in late summer rather than fall — even in August in southwest Louisiana, according to the agricultural extension arm of LSU. This means that the autumn growing season for cabbage is longer than for lettuce and herbs. You can also plant it earlier in spring.

These are all some of the reasons why they still harvest a lot cabbage every spring in the fields behind the surviving San Antonio mission I visited in late January a few years ago when the Texan spring cabbage was doing quite well.

Still, I think the real reason cabbage is so successful is that it’s delicious, even if you’re not used to hearing about it. That wonderfully crunchy texture? A taste that’s weirdly sweet and spicy at the same time? It’s so often ignored. In fact, as with most accounts of cabbage cooking, the entire first chapter of Meg Muckenhoupt’s 2018 book is: Kohl: A Global History Basically, it’s about making fun of what a cabbage with a bad reputation gets in the larger culinary world. Because of the “windiness” – nice euphemism! — and the fact that it gets skunky if you cook it for more than twenty minutes, it’s often considered pure farm food. (Raw cabbage solves the second problem, if not the first.)

Muckenhoupt explains the basis for the flavors in her book. The sweetness comes from sugars (raffinose and sucrose), while the pungent, bitter flavors come from chemicals called glucosinolates, which all cabbages produce — among other things to keep insects away. (Kohl’s success in this regard is perhaps another reason why it became popular across the continent in the 18th century.)

More interesting to me than the science is Muckenhoupt’s discussion of how cooks make bitterness more palatable. You can do it with vinegar, fat, fermenting, or cooking, but you can also combat it simply by chopping the cabbage very thinly or very finely, since the leaves also release some of the same chemicals when cut.

Muckenhoupt’s book has a few cabbage recipes from around the world, but unfortunately almost all of them are for cooked stews, stuffed buns or soups, and none represent America – and none of them are what I would call condiments.

I wish she’d added a curtido, or maybe my own favorite version of coleslaw, which hails from the Mississippi Delta and has a boiled sugar, oil, and vinegar dressing with celery seed and hot mustard. It is poured over layers of thinly sliced ​​cabbage, onions and peppers. I have the recipe from Lead Us Not Into Temptation the community cookbook my great-aunt Dent gave me from her church in Greenwood, Mississippi. I used to tell my admirers that the secret was the salad dressing. Now I can say that it’s just the way you cut the cabbage.

RECIPE: Mississippi Delta coleslaw with cooked celery seed dressing