When Did Cabbage Get So Sexy?

Stuffed cabbage with tofu, mushrooms, and sticky rice at Superiority Burger.Photo: Hugo Yu

Earlier this year, the chef and recipe developer Ham El-Waylly was seated in the frenzied dining room of Superiority Burger when something strange caught his eye. It wasn’t one of the ’90s-era relics lining the walls of the brightly lit restaurant, or the faded box of Lund’s Swedish Pancake Mix that for some reason lives in a glass pastry case behind the bar. It was a menu item, something that a diner might not expect to see at the city’s de facto hottest restaurant: stuffed cabbage.

El-Waylly was skeptical. He’d grown up on his aunt’s maḥshi kromb, a finger-size rendition from Egypt that leans heavily on the leafy side of the wrapper-to-filling ratio. Still, he ordered chef Brooks Headley’s oversize vegan version, which was closer in thickness to a toddler’s arm. When it arrived at his table, the roll was dappled with char from a blast in the restaurant’s pizza oven. Instantly, the splotches of burnished cabbage triggered a memory for El-Waylly of meals during which his relatives would fight over the bits of mahshi kromb that were stuck to the corners of the pan. Then he took a bite. “It just made my heart sing,” he recalls.

The comforts of stuffed cabbage know no borders. “It makes me feel cozy,” says Alison Wu, a creative director who orders the stuffed cabbage tom kha anytime she visits Thai Diner. There, chef Ann Redding cites inspiration from the holubtsi at Veselka for her delicate, gingery, turkey-packed cylinders of Savoy leaves, which rest atop a puddle of tom kha broth and makrut oil. It’s just one of several versions around town that take a swift departure from the pages of The Settlement Cook Book. At Le B., which opened last week, chef Angie Mar blanches cabbage in rabbit stock, then fills it with rabbit loin, shallot, carrot, and celery. Across the bridge, at Fulgurances Laundromat, current chef-in-residence Galen Kennemer has channeled French chou farci with rolled cannulas of beet-soaked Swiss chard, which cosplay as red cabbage. Bottarga butter with smoked-trout roe came on the side, gently bursting in the mouth like sleepy Pop Rocks. Back in Manhattan, the “mandoo” at LittleMäd — with cabbage standing in for dumpling dough — is filled with Blue Crystal prawns and foie gras, then served in a lobster sabayon. (Multiple diners from Scandinavia have told head chef Sol Han that the dish reminds them of Swedish kåldolmar.)

Headley, who regards anything resembling a “trend” with Kenny Shopsin–like levels of wariness, was willing to take my call to discuss cabbage. “I knew I definitely wanted to have stuffed cabbage on the menu when we opened,” he tells me. He wanted to craft an homage both to Odessa — the Ukrainian coffee shop that occupied the space before his restaurant — and to the stuffed cabbage he’d eaten as a child. But achieving the level of “stuck-together beefiness” of his grandmother’s recipe without any meat proved tricky. After many trials, he landed on sticky rice to bind seasoned chunks of tofu and braised mushrooms. The balls of filling are rolled in Napa cabbage leaves and cooked in a sweet-and-sour tomato gravy. Each packet is then scorched in the pizza oven and topped with more reduced sauce, focaccia bread crumbs, and a torrent of olive oil.

There are hundreds of forms of cabbage rolls from which to draw inspiration, and it’s just as well for the restaurateurs paying the grocery bills. While the prawn-and-foie mandoo at LittleMäd might not be padding its margins, some of the other iterations turning heads have proven cost effective: Cabbage is famously cheap. And, according to Kenneth Bower, a produce specialist from Baldor Specialty Foods, the price barely fluctuates, because it’s often grown nearby and can be stored year-round. Even status brassica like Napa cabbage ceilings around $1.90 per pound, says Matt Kirchner, the buying manager at Natoora. By comparison, Natoora’s heirloom tomatoes were $7.94 per pound in late summer, and Little Gem’s price fluctuated between $7.50 and $9.00.

Labor costs for a plate of stuffed cabbage are high, but the process can also be an efficient way to use up kitchen scraps. Chef Ed Szymanski’s version at Lord’s came about when the restaurant had a surplus of duck legs remaining from a popular duck breast dish. They mixed the cooked leg meat with livers, gizzards, and hearts, and another hit dish was born. Immediately, it outpaced the breast dish in sales.

It raises the question: Is there anyone who doesn’t like stuffed cabbage? Recently, Redding’s most fearsome critic — her mother Ampai — visited Thai Diner. Redding held her breath while Ampai tried her daughter’s stuffed cabbage for the first time: “She actually gave me a thumbs-up, which was shocking,” the chef says. “But just one thumb.”