Cabbage – A Stone-Age Vegetable?

Sour Cabbage Soup

It is thought that cabbages have been cultivated since the late Stone Age. Originally these were wild cabbages, which still grow along the Atlantic coast areas of Europe. Both their leaves and seeds were used in cooking. Historical sources attest to the fact that Greeks ate cabbage as early as 400 BC, and categorized them as curly, smooth or wild. Today there are about 120 known varieties of cabbage.

The Greeks ate cabbage and used it for medical purposes – to cure insomnia, headaches, and deafness, to heal wounds and digestive disorders. Romans enjoyed cabbage even more than Greeks, according to Pliny. Cabbage apparently travelled with the Romans to Germanic areas, where it became very popular. They were known in Russia in the 11th century, and it is thought that the culinary tradition of fermenting  cabbage (sauerkraut/rauginti kopūstai) originated there, and resulted in a national dish.

Sailors knew that cabbage was an excellent source of vitamins, expecially “C”, which they ate to prevent scurvy. In fact, the famous explorer James Cook took 60 barrels of cabbage with him when he set out to sail around the world.

Some gastronomical historians maintain that the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania staved off starvation by eating cabbage,  and that the famous sausage and sauerkraut – now acclaimed a Polish national dish – actually originated from the menu enjoyed by Lithuanian armies. This popular food became standard fare for many festive meals as well. In the Dzūkija and Žemaitija regions of Lithuania even today, once the hot sauerkraut soup is served, it means the wedding celebration over.

In folklore, babies were “found” in the cabbage patch, nestled in and covered with a leaf. Traditionally, on March 25, traditionally the day storks return from the south, farmers would inspect their cabbage seeds, which had to be sown before St. George’s Day, April 23. Planting was done in May, so Blessed Mother Mary could protect them. In many areas of Lithuania there was a variety of rituals, often linked to special saints’ days, to ensure a good cabbage harvest, s well as recipes for the use of cabbage for medicinal purposes.

Even today, cabbage soup, cabbage rolls, cabbage salads (slaws) and fermented cabbage are very popular among Lithuanians and other Balts and Eastern Europeans. As far as we know, there are no uniquely Lithuanian cabbage recipes. As is often true, everyone’s favourites are the recipes Mom or Grandma made. Some households still ferment their own cabbage and enjoy them over the winter. Here is one that  can be used for soup or as a side dish for sausage, duck or pork dishes. You will have to find a grocery store or deli that has good “pickled” (fermented) cabbage to start with. Some versions may be overly tart, so a quick rinse under cold water will make it milder. As in many Lithuanian dishes, onion fried with bacon bits create a delicious, traditional flavour.


Lithuanian “Rauginti Kopūstai”

– ½ pound bacon, diced

– 1 or 2 onions, chopped

– 2 carrots, grated

– 6 cups sauerkraut (drained and rinsed)

– 3 tablespoons onion soup mix and/or chicken bouillon powder

– 1 Tbsp caraway seeds (or to taste)

– ½ cup tomato ketchup

– ½ cup water

Fry  bacon with onions until soft, not crispy. Add carrots and remaining ingredients. Toss to combine thoroughly. Cover and simmer on cooktop for 30 minutes until cabbage is tender, or bake, covered, at 350oF for 40 minutes. Freezes well.