Healthier choice recipe: Eurasian cabbage roll

Cabbage rolls.
PHOTO: Healthier choice recipe: Eurasian cabbage roll

Do not look down on the humble cabbage roll, for it is an Eurasian heritage dish.

Not only will you find old-fashioned ingredients such as crushed soda biscuits, Spam and Campbell's chicken soup listed in early recipes, revealing cooking idiosyncrasies of the past, but you can also find the influences of various cultures on Eurasian culinary heritage in the recipes themselves.

There is minced pork, which the Chinese love, especially in soup.

But the meat here is wrapped in cabbage leaves - very European - and flavoured with aromatics such as cinnamon sticks, cloves and star anise, which are so much part of the English stew tradition.

I love it because it is an easy, delicious and, yes, healthy dish to turn out for dinner.

I serve it as a starter if there are guests; on its own if my husband and I want only substantial soup for dinner; or with rice and other dishes if the family comes round.

A dollop of sambal belacan (roasted shrimp paste with chilli) adds zing to the mouthful, something the Peranakans like, revealing clearly the Malay influence on local palates.

Besides being rich in flavour and heritage, the cabbage roll is truly a healthy dish if you opt for lean minced meat.

You can ask the butcher to mince only lean meat to order.

While doing so is not traditional, you can substitute the pork mince with chicken mince, if you are so inclined.

I also cook the rolls by boiling, reducing the fat content even further. Indeed, I do this even with my daily vegetables, rather than stir-frying.

And while thrifty housewives of old would use just water for the soup, you could boost the taste with chicken stock, store-bought or made from scratch.

Packaged stock, if you choose the organic variety, has the advantage of being already skimmed of fat, raising the health stakes even higher.

Or else, skim the fat off your homemade stock before using it.

Finally, the cabbage is an easy way to add greens to the meal.

While the Chinese have a similar dish of meatballs with cabbage, an everyday recipe, this one can be a party dish if you tie the rolls with lengths of spring onion or scallion, softened by scalding, creating a pretty picture.

The scallion ties have the added benefit of securing the rolls during the cooking, though I make sure that the parcels are not subject to hard boiling, which could unravel them.

I also take the precaution of laying the rolls firmly against one another in a shallow braising dish to cook, serving them later in the same dish to prevent the rolls from becoming undone.

That said, do not worry if the rolls do unravel during the cooking, for you are eating good old-fashioned comfort food and the taste, rather than the looks, matters more.

Sylvia Tan is a freelance writer and cookbook author. Her previous recipes for Eat To Live can be found in two cookbooks, Eat To Live and Taste.


Cabbage rolls
(Serves eight to 10)


10-12 round cabbage leaves, left whole
2 stalks spring onions
400g ground lean pork or chicken
1 egg
1 tsp light soya sauce
1 tsp cinnamon powder
White pepper to taste
5 cups unsalted chicken or vegetable stock or water
1 medium white onion, quartered
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anises
4 cloves
4-6 peppercorns
1 tsp salt, if using unsalted stock


1. Scald the cabbage leaves and stalks of spring onion with boiling water. Remove the leaves when they have softened and rinse them in cold tap water to stop the cooking.

2. Shave off a little of the centre rib of each cabbage leaf to make it easier to roll. Separate the spring onion leaves.

3. Mix together the minced pork, egg, light soya sauce, cinnamon powder and pepper to make the filling.

4. Place a generous spoonful of the filling on each leaf and roll each one up so that it looks like a spring roll, with the ends tucked in. Secure with a spring onion leaf tied into a knot.

5. Place the stock in a shallow braising dish. Add the salt if the stock is unsalted. Add the quartered onion, cinnamon stick, star anises, cloves and peppercorns.

6. Place the cabbage rolls, tightly wedged against one another, into the stock.

7. Bring the stock to the boil. Then, turn down the heat to let the stock simmer for 5 to 10 minutes or till the rolls are cooked.

8. Turn off the heat. Serve the rolls with sambal belacan and hot rice.

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