Confucius and Cato the Elder had three things in common: both of them bequeathed us lots of wise and inspirational quotes, both of them loved cabbage fermented with salt, and both of them had no idea it was called sauerkraut. To be fair to both distinguished ancient dignitaries, during their lifetimes, and for many centuries afterwards, nobody called this simple, yet exceptionally healthy dish by a German name. Perhaps it is because in 200 B.C.E. the Romans were too busy fighting the Punic Wars and hadn’t gotten around to Germany just yet.
If you have patience to watch this video, Beautiful People, you will see that having vanquished Carthage, Cato ordered to have the city completely destroyed by covering the ground and the ruins with salt. Salt was one of his obsessions, and so was Carthage. As a senator, he used to conclude every speech by the same tag line, “Carthage must be destroyed.” He finally had a chance to combine his two obsessions and achieve his goal. But Cato, a simple farmer who made a brilliant career, was not the only one in the ancient world who had made creative use of salt.
Even though the Western World has not learned about the Great Wall of China, as well as The Great Silk Road until Marco Polo’s report in 13th century, both had originated with the Han Dynasty, which came to power at about the same time Roman Senator Cato, also known as a great orator and a prolific writer, penned his De Agri Cultura – On Agriculture. In it, he included a chapter called Praise of Cabbage, extolling its benefits for health and longevity. Meanwhile, in China, the Han Emperor Wu opened the very first university in the world where a special program was created to study “the Five Classics of Confucianism—five books called the Book of Changes, the Book of Documents, the Book of Odes, the Book of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals— translated into modern script. By the year second century A.D., the university had 30,000 students studying Confucianism.” (M. Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han). At the same time, Emperor Wu sent a special mission to find out what, if anything, was happening in the territories lying to the west of his vast empire. Imagine their surprise and delight when, having endured all the hardships of traveling through wild, uncivilized lands, they eventually reached the rich Mediterranean region and its thriving hegemon – Rome. Thirteen years after, the trade mission made its way back to the Emperor, reported what they had seen and outlined a route that soon developed into the international trade throughway known as the Great Silk Road (ibid.) “What took you so long?” – must have asked the Emperor. “Why, Your Majesty, we all had earned our degrees by studying Confucius who wrote that it does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.”
I doubt that the Imperial envoy’s performance in Rome looked like this adorable Chinese dance performed by the fabulous St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet (considered on par with Bolshoi), but, while discussing the logistics of the future Great Silk Road, Emperor Wu might have asked his Trade Ambassador, “Just for the sake of my curiosity, man, what did you eat while on the road?” “Why, Your Majesty, we all had earned our degrees by studying Confucius, so per his advice, we preserved cabbage by spreading salt between the leaves, and let me tell you, Sire, we don’t know what to call it, but it’s cheap, delicious, and doesn’t spoil.” “Great idea! – must have explained the Emperor, – Verily, Confucius said that you cannot open a book without learning something, and now we have learned how to feed people building that long wall!” The latter is a matter of record: builders of the Great Wall of China ate fermented cabbage, though they used rice wine, which was in abundance, instead of the precious salt (“Sauerkraut: It All Began in China,” New York Time). Cato, however, had no such limitations, since by the time the Imperial Trade Mission reached Rome, he has already gained both wealth and prominence; it was no financial hardship for him to replace vinegar he had formerly used with salt. He still treasured the simple life of a farmer, as well as simple foods, especially fermented, or preserved, as he called it, cabbage.
I suspect that both parties, the Chinese envoy and the Roman senator, were equally pleased to find out that the two great countries had at least one thing in common – humble leafy green vegetable. But the triumphant progression of fermented cabbage in the West was halted for almost a millennium by the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. I don’t know what those barbarians ate as they left no records and the legends are too gory to retell, but it is almost certain that the next time green leaves, albeit shredded, fermented in salt, appeared in Europe with Genghis Khan in 12th century. The Germans considered cabbage an herb, rather than a vegetable, thus the name they gave this dish was Sour Herb – Sauerkraut, and it was under this name that it has made its way into every European cuisine.
There are as many variations of it, as there are countries on the patchwork map of Europe, and all of these recipes have been brought to the New world by immigrants taking advantage of “the golden door” promised by Emma Lazarus and Lady Liberty. I prefer the Russian recipe, mixing shredded cabbage with grated carrots. The sugar in carrots facilitates fermentation, but my grandmother used to add some sugar as well, to speed up the process. Due to my husband’s dietary restriction, I use xylitol. I also sprinkle just a few drops of lemon juice and garnish with fresh dill before serving – according to my husband, it lends it the Israeli taste (go figure!). I assure you, Beautiful People, a simpler dish you have never made!
- 1 large head of cabbage, shredded
- 4 – 5 large carrots, grated
- 1 cup of course salt (preferably, Kosher sea salt)
- 1/2 cup of sugar or substitute
- Fresh dill to garnish
- Optional: a few drops of lemon juice before serving
- Combine all ingredients, mix well, rub by hand for a few minutes.
- Pack tightly into ceramic, glass, or enameled container. Cover tightly.
- Place in a sunny place, but not direct sunlight for 2 – 3 days. Taste for doneness when you see it settling down and slightly changing color.
- Keep refrigerated or in a cool place (below 60 F),
- Serve garnished with fresh dill.
About the guest author:
Dolly Aizenman is the brainchild behind Kool Kosher Kitchen (Which her blog and her book are named after).
This charismatic Russian blogger is fond of cooking and writing.
She has a BA in Art and Music Education, MA in English, MS in Education and Ed.D. in Educational Leadership.