The humble cabbage is the third most consumed vegetable in Japan according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, following daikon radishes and onions. It’s used in everything from stir-fries and gyōza dumplings to pickles and more and, despite the high prices for fresh produce this year, it’s still an affordable standby for the budget-conscious consumer. But like so many vegetables that we take for granted, its entry into the Japanese market is quite recent.

The main clue that the cabbage came from Europe is its name in Japanese, kyabetsu. The earliest varieties of this brassica were introduced in the late Edo Period (1603-1868), but they were of an ornamental variety. The first cabbages for eating were grown for the benefit of the newly arrived visitors from the West in the 1850s in, or near, designated open port towns. In Yokohama, which was opened to foreign ships in 1859, fields for growing Western produce such as celery, carrots, tomatoes, peas, asparagus and cabbage were established in what are now the Suekichi and Negishi districts in 1863, under the supervision of the Kanagawa magistrate.

The first large-scale cabbage growing project was in 1874 in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), when they were used as one of the crops to cultivate Hokkaido. It was grown in other cold weather regions such as Nagano, but production did not really pick up until after World War II, since it was to that point firmly associated with yōshoku (Western-style cuisine) in most people’s minds.

One of the first widespread uses of cabbage was the now ubiquitous mound of finely shredded raw cabbage that accompanies dishes of tonkatsu, korokke (croquettes) and other breaded, deep-fried dishes. Japanese people didn’t have a custom of eating raw, unsalted vegetables at all until the Meiji Era. But when an upmarket yōshoku restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo, started serving shredded raw cabbage in the 1890s, it caused a sensation. Ever since, shredded cabbage has become de rigueur for fried dishes.

In the 1960s and ’70s, when the spread of electric rice cookers and other appliances made previously difficult cooking tasks no brainers, a new “standard” test to determine how wife-worthy a young lady was in the kitchen was thought up — how finely she could shred cabbage. Nowadays it’s possible to cheat on that part too and use a shredder or a food processor of course.

While regular cabbage is available year-round, spring cabbage is in season right now. Spring cabbage heads are more loosely formed than regular cabbage, and the vibrant green leaves are crinkled and tender. They can be eaten raw in salads, lightly blanched, or quickly sauteed. They can also be used in any dish that regular cabbage can be used in. Some sushi restaurants even use them as wrappers instead of nori seaweed to make “spring cabbage rolls.”

This month’s recipe is a take on “roll cabbage” as it’s called in Japan — stuffed cabbage rolls. “Roll cabbage” was originally introduced in yōshoku restaurants and was based on German recipes, but is now a popular standard home-cooked dish. This version gives it a traditional Japanese twist by simmering the rolls in a konbu seaweed based dashi, and using a mixture of ground chicken and tofu as the filling. Using tender spring cabbage shortens the cooking time, giving this usually bland looking dish a vibrant color.

Spring cabbage rolls with chicken and tofu

Ingredients (serves 4 to 8)

• 20 grams dried konbu seaweed

• 1 liter water

• 8 large spring cabbage leaves

• 200 grams firm tofu

• 350 grams ground chicken

• 1 medium onion, finely chopped

• ½ medium carrot, finely chopped

• 1 teaspoon grated ginger

• 1 teaspoon salt

• ½ teaspoon black pepper

• 2 tablespoons sake

• 1 tablespoon mirin (cooking rice wine)

• 3 tablespoons usukuchi (light colored) soy sauce

• A few sprigs of parsley or mitsuba, chopped

• 8-10 cherry tomatoes, halved

To make the dashi:

Put the konbu in the water, and leave to soak for at least 30 minutes. Heat over medium heat. Just before it comes to a full boil, turn off the heat and take out the konbu. (Alternatively, dissolve 2 teaspoons of konbu based dashi stock granules in the water.)

To make the cabbage rolls:

Drain the tofu well. Combine with the ground chicken, onion, carrot, ginger, salt and pepper. Mix well.

If the root end of the main vein of the cabbage leaves is very thick, shave off some of it with a knife — this makes them easier to roll up. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the cabbage leaves, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Take the leaves out of the pan, and drain and cool.

Divide the chicken and tofu filling into eight portions. Place a portion in the middle of each cabbage leaf and wrap it around to form eight rolls. Secure each roll with a toothpick or a piece of uncooked spaghetti.

Put the cabbage rolls seam side down in the pot with dashi, mirin, sake and soy sauce. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 35 to 40 minutes until the cabbage is tender and the filling is cooked through.

Serve hot with some of the cooking broth, garnished with parsley or mitsuba and cherry tomatoes, with some extra soy sauce or ponzu (citrus-based soy sauce) on the side.

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