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Alien food

Kohlrabi has become something of a culinary oddity, but it is a cheap and ecologically friendly food that provides great versatility in the kitchen

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Kohlrabi slaw makes a perfect side to a dish of tomato and honey-glazed ribs.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Kohlrabi is a vegetable with image issues. Quite apart from its peculiar name, about which more later, it looks like an alien from a low budget science fiction movie. Moreover, this hard globe, protected by a tough outer skin, does not offer the prospective cook any easy clues about how to proceed. Kohlrabi was once widely cultivated in Europe, and is still popular in Germany and some parts of Eastern Europe, but has become sidelined as something of an oddity in the culinary mainstream.

In Taiwan, kohlrabi is most commonly referred to as “big head vegetable” (大頭菜), and has a long history, used particularly in soup or as a pickle. Probably the best-known kohlrabi dish for Taiwanese is kohlrabi and short rib soup (大頭菜排骨湯), which uses the stem very much as you might use a daikon radish, and while perfectly tasty, does not even begin to show the versatility of this much neglected vegetable.

The name kohlrabi is derived from the German kohl meaning cabbage and rube (or rabi) meaning turnip. It belongs to the Brassica family, which includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts. Despite its name, it is no relation to the turnip. It is sometimes mistaken for a root vegetable, but in fact the large bulb of the kohlrabi grows above ground. Its flavor is delicate, with hints of broccoli stem and radish, and depending on how you cook it, the texture can vary from crunchy to spongy.

There are theories that kohlrabi has been relegated to its current marginal position by its “more flavorful” relatives such as broccoli and cabbage. My own experience is that kohlrabi is both quite distinctive and can stand up to any of these more recognized relatives. The reason for this may well be its marginal status. As it is not a major economic crop, it is generally grown in a slower, more sustainable fashion. Flavor-wise, I have found it to be much more satisfying than supermarket-purchased broccoli, which often seems profoundly devoid of taste and is only consumed because we are repeatedly told how healthy it is.

Once you get beyond kohlrabi’s intimidating appearance, it is actually remarkably easy to process. The dense bulb should be quartered, and the thick outer skin cut away, leaving a tender flesh that can be diced, sliced or grated and cooked in a wide variety of ways. (It should be mentioned that the leaves of the kohlrabi can also be eaten, and are said to resemble the flavor of cabbage, but generally “big head vegetable” is sold without foliage.)

Kohlrabi is a very healthy vegetable that packs lots of nutrition into a very low calorie package. It is a rich source of Vitamin C, with higher levels even than oranges, and has good levels of minerals: copper, calcium, potassium, manganese, iron, and phosphorus. It has health-promoting phytochemicals that appear to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects. They are good for keeping chronic, low-level inflammations in check, which in turn helps reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and osteoporosis.

Kohlrabi can be eaten raw, finely sliced or grated. Eating it this way highlights its crunchy texture, and its porous flesh means that it takes up flavors well. It therefore works particularly well with slaws (see recipe) and salads. Its own subtle flavor is best highlighted by roasting: just pop diced kohlrabi in the oven with some olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme at 200 degrees Celsius for about 45 minutes. Shredded, it works well as fritters, or steamed, it can be turned into a lovely puree.

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