February 17 (Part Two) – Cabbage Day

So now that you’ve had your fill of coffee-flavored goodies for Cafe Au Lait Day, it’s a good time to tell you that February 17 is one of those special national food days that celebrates two different foods at once! Though…it’s good that I told you this after Cafe Au Lait day, since these aren’t two foods that necessarily should be enjoyed together, heh. Today is also Cabbage Day, the ubiquitous leafy green vegetable we Americans best know as a silted side dish accompanying corned beef every March 17. But this plant is so much more than that: it’s been found at the dinner table for millennia, in cuisines all over the world, from the cabbage soups of Eastern Europe to spicy Korean kim chee to, yes, even Irish colcannon. And, just like the pistachio, the almond, and other foods that have found their way all over the globe, cabbage plays a prominent role in New York cuisine.

To list all of the best restaurants in New York that highlight the versatility of the cabbage would leave me (and you!) here all day, without any time to head out and get to those restaurants–and everyone should already be tucked in from a good breakfast for Cafe Au Lait Day, so no need to completely overindulge. 😛 Instead I’m focusing on three world cuisines that first came to mind when hearing the word “cabbage”: China, Korea, and Poland. The fourth regional cuisine I’m reminded of–Ireland–is conspicuously left out, as its most famous dish will have its own day of celebration in, oh, about a month or so. 😉

From the far East we get some of the most popular cabbage-related dishes New York has to offer. One of my favorites as an adult (I actually never liked the crisp crunch as a kid!) is the Chinese egg roll, the simple and satisfying roll of cabbage, carrots, and other vegetables (and sometimes pork or shrimp) rolled up in dough and deep fried. It leaves the dough crunchy and deliciously greasy on the outside, but the inside is still crisp and warm. Add a touch of duck sauce with each bite, and you’ve got yourself a handy snack that’ll keep hunger at bay. I like them particularly on cold winter days exploring Chinatown and lower Manhattan: they come out piping hot but not too hot that you can’t eat them right away, and the warm, dense cabbage fills my stomach and fuels me for lots of winter sightseeing.

And, arguably, the best egg roll you can find in New York has been highlighted by the grand poobah of “best” lists, Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate. The Chinatown Brasserie is an expensive place for the cheap eats of Chinatown, but you won’t find a better egg roll anywhere else. They’re cooked to perfection, and with special add-ins like mushrooms, shrimp, and bamboo shoots, their ingredients are far superior to the local Mr. Tang. And if you’re looking for something a little higher-end than the traditional egg roll, they make a barbecue pork egg roll with hoisin sauce that’s reminiscent of Peking duck–something you’ve got to try if you missed January 18 😉

Chinatown Brasserie
380 Lafayette St (between 4th St & Great Jones St)

www.chinatownbrasserie.com

Some reviews from Yelp.com:

“For appetizers, we had to try the egg rolls of Food Network fame. We ordered the original and the mango shrimp varieties. The latter were very tasty and unusual, with fresh whole shrimp and plump, juicy mangos inside a perfectly crispy wrapper. As to the original egg roll, yes it was different from its counterpart served in a Chinese take-out hole in the wall that is usually frozen and flash fried then not even drained before it gets shoved into a wax paper bag.”–Lisa D.

“The classic egg rolls were awesome – light and crispy and full of fresh vegetables and a bit of shrimp – just perfect.”–Jason R.

 

Just a little south of the previous cuisine geographically–and a little east over to Flushing in terms of New York cuisine–and you find Korean food, where one of the most famous cabbage dishes, kimchi, rules supreme. This spicy, bright-red condiment is a mix of fermented napa cabbage, scallion, and peppers, and is used as a side dish for just about every Korean dish imaginable, as well as the main ingredient in various stews and soups. Kimchi is usually too spicy for my tastes, but if you like heat, you’ll absolutely love trying out different varieties all over Flushing and Koreatown: like so many ethnic food staples, every Korean chef has a slightly different recipe for their own special blend of kimchi.

When you’re in New York, however, you must check out Hahm Ji Bach in Queens for some of the best kimchi dishes around. They make a famous kimchi jigae, or soup, that includes tofu, beef, pork belly, and lots and lots of spicy kimchi. It’s a spicy attack to the senses at first, but then the sweet properties of the vegetables–namely the tomato, but there’s also a sweet aspect to cabbage–comes through as it cools. While the restaurant is foremost a Korean barbecue joint (where you cook the meat right at your table–talk about kitschy!) the jigae is one of the most popular dishes here, for its complementary flavors to the heavy barbecue, and for its spice alone.

Hahm Ji Bach
41-08 149th Pl, Flushing

www.hahmjibach.com/

“Next time you’re craving a sinus assault at 4am, head to Queens for the kimchi jigae at 24-hour Korean restaurant Hahm Ji Bach. This traditional stew arrives in a bubbling clay cauldron, and its fire-red color is an indication of what’s to come. The tomato-and-dried-pepper–based broth is bobbing with big cubes of fatty pork, hunks of tofu, kimchi and onion, and its aroma alone is enough to get your nose running. The jigae has a heat that attacks the entire mouth, infiltrating every taste bud with the sweat-and-tears-inducing power of the pepper. Stick with it: As it cools, the broth mellows, and the sweetness of the tomatoes and kimchi peeks through.”–Time Out New York

Some reviews from Yelp.com:

“We also got complimentary beef and cabbage soup. It was delicious and tasted like something your mom (or my mom, well actually my grandma) would cook at home.”–Rachel A.

“This place was fantastic! I’ve tried some Korean restaurants in Korea Town in Manhattan, but nothing comes close to Hahm Ji Bach. We had bibimbap with sausage and Kimchi soup. The kimchi soup was honestly the best I’ve ever had.”–Kathleen G.

 

And my old great-grandmother would spin in her grave if I didn’t mention the tried and true Eastern European delicacy of stuffed cabbage. Filled with ground meat and spices, the stuffed cabbage is baked to perfection and comes out, if made correctly, succulent and flavorful, and with scents and flavors full of home comforts. Wikipedia lists the dish as being a staple in Jewish cuisine for over 2,000 years, and you can taste every year of tradition in a good stuffed cabbage.

Though I’m used to the Ukranian version with a sweet and sour tomato-based sauce, one of the best stuffed cabbages in the city has a thick, savory sauce, typical of the Polish style of cooking. Lomzynianka (yes I had to copy and paste that name, I’m not proud) in the Polish enclave of Greenpoint comes out head and shoulders above all the rest, with a tender, tasty stuffed cabbage that feels like you’ve stepped right into Poland. You can get the cabbage here a la carte or try it on the Polish plate, which, for only $7, highlights all the best foods Lomzynianka has to offer: pierogies, kielbasa, potatoes, and of course, the delicious stuffed cabbage.

Lomzynianka
646 Manhattan Ave (between Bedford Ave & Norman Ave), Greenpoint

www.lomzynianka.com

“The veal meatballs were fluffier and lighter than anything with meat has any right to be. The stuffed cabbage had a similar lightness, a contradiction of all the stereotypes and all my worries about how heavy Eastern European food is. At this restaurant it has a surprising delicacy.”New York Times Diners Journal

Some reviews from Yelp.com:

“I ordered the stuffed cabbage plate that came with the same salad assortment. I opted to change out the plain potatoes for fried potato dumplings and glad I did. The stuffed cabbage rolls were about half a pound each. Huge. Delish.”–Amy L.

“Who knew there could be so many ways to prepare cabbage!!?? I’m not a big fan of cabbage but Lomzynianka changed my mind. At Lomzynianka, cabbage comes in many colors that I feel like I am Peter Rabbit sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s garden. I ordered the Polish Platter since it was the first time I tried Polish food. We also tried the veal in a dill sauce which was surprisingly good. The food there was cheap and satisfying that I left the place a stuffed bunny, stuffed with a stuffed cabbage.”–Titcha H.

 

I hope this post has helped broaden your view of what cabbage can do for a regional cuisine and how far it can go beyond the pungent boiled leaves everyone knows so well. Cabbage can be flavorful, sweet, spicy, dense and savory…it can be absolutely delicious! Do you have a favorite cabbage dish you’d like to share with us? Anywhere in the city you know that has the secret best recipe for cabbage? Let us know about it in the comments!

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