Cabbage was widely grown in ancient China. In fact, the workers on the Great Wall so many years ago were fed on cabbage and rice. When winter came, wine was added to the cabbage to preserve it, producing a sour cabbage pleasant to the taste, which didn’t spoil. A thousand years later the Tartars under Genghis Khan conquered China and carried sour cabbage with them as they overran other parts of the world. The vitamin C in cabbage was enough to prevent scurvy, the deficiency disease which killed many soldiers on long marches in ancient times.
When the Tartars came to Eastern Europe they were still eating sour cabbage, but they were preserving it with salt rather than wine. The Russians, Poles and Austrians tasted this food of their conquerors and liked it. The Austrians named it sauerkraut. The Dutch brought cole slaw to America, its name deriving from kool for cabbage and sla for salad: cabbage salad.
Raw cabbage has been known from antiquity as a remedy for drunkenness. Eating cabbage with vinegar before a drinking bout and after a feast would prevent one from feeling too strongly the effects of the wine or beer.
Pliny, the Roman naturalist, thought the best cabbages were those tiny heads that grow on the stalk after the original big head is picked. Gardeners who leave the cabbage stalk in the ground usually find these a few weeks later.
Down through the centuries cabbage has been used for just about every purpose industrious herb doctors could experiment with: chronic coughs, colic, constipation, dysentery, toothache, gout, pains in the liver, deafness, insomnia and many other ailments. Contrarily, some writers on herb medicines declared that cabbage should be avoided because of its tendency to cause flatulence.
Today we know that long cooking produces the sulfur compounds which, in the past, gave cabbage its bad name. Heat, soaking in water or cooking for too long a time break down the sulfur compounds and create the digestive problems some people have with cabbage. Serve cabbage raw if you would get the most out of it, nutritionally speaking. If you must cook it, make it brief—no more than a few minutes in a tiny bit of water. Shred or chop it finely before cooking, so that this short cooking time will be enough.
Cabbage is one of our best sources of vitamin C—raw, it may contain up to 50 milligrams per serving. It also contains considerable potassium and vitamin A. One half cup contains only 10 calories, so it is an excellent “filler” food for the calorie-counter. A dressing of lemon juice or vinegar adds almost no calories. Mayonnaise or other oily salad dressing is suitable if you are counting carbohydrate units rather than calories. When you shred cabbage for slaw for cooking, prepare it as soon as possible before eating. It loses vitamin C with every additional moment it stands before eating. Keep the cabbage head in the refrigerator and, if you don’t use it all at one meal, cover the cut side with waxed paper or foil to keep out all air.