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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Chloe Mac Donnell

Why the humble hispi cabbage is the new cauliflower steak

Paprika lentils with grilled hispi cabbage from food writer Joe Woodhouse's book More Daily Veg.
Paprika lentils with grilled hispi cabbage from food writer Joe Woodhouse's book More Daily Veg. Photograph: Courtesy of Joe Woodhouse

For decades its overcooked smell has haunted school corridors, but now cabbage is becoming the must-order dish on the menus of Britain’s coolest restaurants.

At Angela Hartnett’s Michelin-starred London restaurant Murano, hispi cabbage is lightly charred for added smokiness, then drizzled in a pistachio romesco sauce.

At Akub in Notting Hill, chef Fadi Kattan does a modern take on the traditional Palestinian dish, malfouf with laban, showcasing grilled hispi with garlic yoghurt and pomegranate.

At Box-E, a restaurant in a refashioned shipping container on Bristol’s docks, it comes with smoked trout and lemon butter, while at Osip, a farm-to-table restaurant in Somerset, it is grilled and served with beet mole and preserved red currants.

A hispi cabbage dish on a white plate
A hispi cabbage dish at Rovi in Fitzrovia, London. Photograph: PR

Joe Woodhouse, the author of More Daily Veg, says: “We’ve finally moved away from that 1950s idea of boiling cabbage. Grilling, marinating, roasting, these types of techniques have made the idea of cabbage sexier.”

Leading the charge is the hispi cabbage. A pointed variety, it is more commonly known as sweetheart cabbage. Now, rather than being a side dish, it has become the main event, sitting alongside the meat and fish options.

For vegetarians it has pushed nut roasts and portobello mushrooms out of favour. And while in supermarkets, you can pick up a British head for about 62p, in restaurants deluxe wedges range anywhere from £9.50 to more than £30.

Not since hipsters started massaging kale in 2016 has there been so much hype for a humble brassica. Pinterest says searches for cabbage recipes are up 50% month on month. On TikTok the hashtag “cabbage” has amassed more than 1bn views with viral recipes for charred and roasted versions.

Chargrilled hispi cabbage with salad cream and crispy pork.
Chargrilled hispi cabbage with salad cream and crispy pork. Photograph: Maya Bee/Alamy

Christina Soteriou, a chef who cut her teeth at the Middle Eastern vegetarian restaurant Bubala in London, recently went viral for her take on roasted hispi cabbage with whipped tofu. She believes one of the reasons hispi has become so hyped is because it looks impressive on a plate. “It’s also cheap, versatile and doesn’t take much prep.”

“It’s the new cauliflower steak,” says the chef and food writer Jane Baxter, who has been championing hispi cabbage as a main dish for years. Baxter points to “tattooed chefs with hibachi grills” on social media as a catalyst. She prefers to braise hers with bacon and caraway seeds. “It’s just a great vegetable. You can even have it raw in salads.”

Brassica oleracea capitata hispi.
Brassica oleracea capitata ‘hispi’. Photograph: Pablo Paul/Alamy

In the UK, the pointed cabbage season runs from March to November. In between it is mainly imported from Spain and the Netherlands. Neil Campbell, the head chef at Rovi in upmarket Fitzrovia in London, currently has a grilled version on the menu which he serves with bergamot and smoked honey. While Campbell cooks according to the British season, he pegs hispis sudden widespread popularity to a concurrent increase in the prices of cauliflower. In 2019, wholesale prices hovered around the 54p bracket, today it is closer to 90p.

Woodhouse adds that fermenting trends such as kimchi and sauerkraut have helped normalise cabbage to the masses. “Hispi is less daunting than, say, a huge white cabbage. You can use it all up in one meal and it cooks really quickly.”

Online users are often surprised that cooked cabbage can have texture. Campbell describes hispi as “quite meaty”. He likes to cook it slowly whole over hot coals for an hour until it blackens. He then peels off the crust before grilling it. “It carries so much flavour. All the tiny crevices fill up with sauce. It’s very comforting.”

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