Navigating the food world like a pro

So commonplace as to be easily overlooked, cabbages are worthy of attention. Here is a primer to locally available types.

• History and varieties: Well known to the Romans, cabbages have been farmed for millennia in the West and Middle East, reaching Asia through trade routes over the past three centuries. Producers have since developed hundreds of cultivars, usually classified according to shape and/or seasonality. Spring or summer varieties are often lighter-flavoured, winter varieties more robust and sweeter. Cabbages may be a single colour all the way through or fade from a deepercoloured exterior to a pale core.

• Round cabbage: The most common kind, white or green, with tightly packed leaves. Most supermarket types are fairly versatile and suitable for raw and cooked recipes. Do not overcook them or they may take on a sulphurous dankness. While Korean cooks prefer Chinese cabbage for kimchi, they do make a variation with round white cabbage called yangbaechu (Western cabbage) kimchi.

• Flat cabbage (photo 1): Green or white, with flattened drum shapes, their broad leaves are usually tender-crisp, with a mild and pleasant flavour. Equally good raw or cooked, but bland if overcooked.

• Red cabbage (photo 2): These densely packed and heavy heads make very crunchy slaws and salads when raw and can be slowly braised until tender. Cook red cabbage with a dash of an acidic ingredient, such as vinegar, citrus or fruit juice, to bring out its deep-purple colour. Pickled in acid, it turns an intense fuchsia-pink. Alkaline conditions give it an unappetising blue hue.

• Pointed cabbage (photo 3): Sometimes called sugarloaf cabbage as it resembles the cone-shaped loaves into which sugar was historically moulded for sale. Pale green, solid, lightly crunchy and quite sweet when very fresh, they are excellent for salads, slaws and pickles and as part of a raw-vegetable plate to accompany an ulam meal, or Thai nam prik dips.

• Chinese cabbage: Distant cousins of Western cabbages, more closely related to bok choy and turnips, their flavour sometimes has radish or turnip undertones. Fleshy-stemmed with thin leaves, they are juicy when eaten raw in salads, succulent when stir-fried and buttery-soft when slow-cooked. Two shapes are common, a blocky barrel shape and a longer cylindrical shape (photo 4). They taste the same, though the former is typically a bit softer. Also shown here is a purple type (photo 5), whose green-purple leaves are a striking amethyst on their inner sides. It has a brighter, sweeter flavour than green types. Look for it in gourmet supermarkets.

• Savoy cabbage (photo 6): Distinguished by thin, deeply crinkled leaves, with a gentle flavour and little tendency to develop a sulphurous aroma. Pliable and strong when raw or lightly blanched, the leaves are ideal for wrapping vegetable parcels or rolls. Best eaten raw or cooked until just tender. Usually quite expensive here.

• Brussels sprouts (photo 7): A miniature cabbage variety which grows on stalks like linear bunches of grapes. Only buy them if they are very fresh, as old or stale sprouts can taste musty and bitter. They are sweet when lightly cooked and mushy and dank-smelling when overcooked. Small, pert sprouts can be eaten raw. Purple cultivars exist, but are seldom seen here.

• Choosing and storing: Choose heads which feel heavy for their size and lack soft or discoloured spots. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and store in the vegetable drawer of the fridge for up to a week. Juicy Chinese cabbages are the most perishable, while very dense heads such as red cabbage last the longest. Condensation hastens spoilage.

Text and photos: Chris Tan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2015, with the headline 'Cheat Sheet Navigating the food world like a pro Cabbages'. Subscribe