Cabbage Soup With Apple: The Childhood Favorite
My grandparents used to take over our house every year. And when I say take over, I mean they would occupy our house for up to six weeks – filling our ears with the Afrikaans from their mouths, our brains with the stories of the pre-war South Africa of their childhoods, and our kitchen with what they liked to eat. My grandfather, a creature of culinary habit, would fill the pantry with the various European pickles and South African staples he subsisted on – delicious herring and onions for the former, various forms of dried cracker and jam for the latter. On the other hand, my grandmother – knitter, soup maestro, and shade-thrower extraordinaire –filled our stomachs and freezer with an arsenal of soups. Many of my childhood memories either involve eating her soup, or the effort to find adequate containers to store the amount she had made.
My favorite soup as a child was her kapushta – a cabbage soup imported from her parents’ homeland of Lithuania. Tart, beguilingly sweet, and traversing the boundary between “light” and “dense,” kapushta – or, more commonly, “cabbage borscht,” is a world on a plate. It is also a deeply vernacular food. Russian and Ukrainian peasants were making cabbage soup in the 11th century; by the 18th century, the soup was consumed from Vienna, to Perm, to Helsinki, to Bucharest. Around that time, tomatoes and potatoes arrived in Eastern Europe from the Americas Even today, in Eastern Europe, one can find soup on the menu of many a “home-style cooking” establishment. Or, as the Russians say, “cabbage soup and kasha – this is our food!” The name kapushta – common in Poland, and in Slovakia as kapustnica, simply means “cabbage.” “Cabbage borsht” – or borsht mit kroyt – seems to be a bit more common as a name than kapushta. I asked many of my friends who had this soup as children, and more of them called it “borscht” or something along those lines – and even more just “cabbage soup.” I wonder, after some research, if kapushta is a regionalism based on the Lithuanian kopūstienė or kopūstų sriuba.
The Jewish versions are generally kosher renditions of their neighbors. This fact stands to reason, since Jews were not exactly wealthy at this time either, cabbage was cheap and plentiful, and folks have copied each other’s cooking since the dawn of humankind. So here, we Ashkenazim swapped the lard for other fats, and skipped the sausage-smetana combinations as garnish. Sometimes, however, there are more specific additions: kneidlach (matzoh balls) or farfel (an egg pasta). The preparation can also be a hint as to the region of origin: apples added a tartness often associated with Lithuanian Jews and their taste for the sour, whereas some sugar could indicate a recipe from Galitzia (Southern Poland and Western Ukraine, known as “Galicia” during the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and the sweet tooth of the Jews there. It is the former that my very Litvak grandmother cooks: she even slices the apple thinly to make crisp the tartness of the soup.
Then there are the traditions surrounding cabbage soup in various parts of Ashkenazi Jewry. Some serve the sweet-tangy soup on Hanukkah because of its “warmth” and to commemorate the sweetness of victory. German Jews, however, eat it on Hoshanah Rabah, as part of a pun: the German and Western Yiddish Kohl mit Wasser (cabbage with water) sounds like the Hebrew qol mevaser (voice proclaiming) – and thus celebrates the proclamation of G-d’s divine mercy. Many more groups associate the soup with the solemnity and celebration of the Friday night Shabbat (or Shabbos, for many Ashkenazim) dinner. Indeed, in our family, that was kapushta’s frequent stage.
My grandmother recently resent me her recipe – one that I had received and mislaid many times. This message triggered a renewed flurry of kapushta-making, one that has given my kitchen and my mother’s kitchen a cabbage smell. It is not everyone’s favorite odor, but it is the smell of my childhood – and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
This kapushta is slightly adjusted from my grandmother’s recipe: I like to find chunks of sweet apple in the tangy soup, so I dice the apple rather than slice it thinly. Furthermore, I use water rather than stock or bouillon for the soup itself: I find that a flavored liquid can drown the flavors too much, whereas water allows the apple, vinegar, cabbage, and tomatoes to do their magical work.
Cabbage Soup With Apple (Kapushta)
Based on the recipe of Esther Back
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large head green cabbage, washed and chopped into thin slices
16 oz. canned tomatoes in water*
1 large or 2 medium apple(s), cored and diced – use Granny Smith or Jonagold for a more tart flavor, Honeycrisp for a sweet-tart balance, or Jonathan for a sweeter addition
3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
3 tbsp white sugar
2 tbsp salt (and more to taste at serving)
2 tbsp dried dill
1 tbsp ground black pepper (and more to taste at serving)
2 tsp ground paprika (optional)
1 tsp dried thyme
Water (amount varies)
Small egg noodles or farfel (optional)
Matzoh balls, prepared according to your favorite recipe (optional)
- In a large soup pot, sauté the onions in the oil until translucent but not brown.
- Add the chopped cabbage and garlic and mix thoroughly with the onions.
- Cover the whole mixture in water up to two or three inches above where the cabbage reached in the pot. If you needed to take your pot off the stove to do this, place it back on the flame and add the tomatoes, and mix in thoroughly.
- Add the apple, vinegar, sugar, salt, black pepper, paprika, and thyme once the water is boiling.
- Boil for a few minutes, then reduce to a simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half, by which time the cabbage should be very soft and translucent.
- If you are serving noodles or farfel with the soup, cook the noodles or farfel according to package directions. For noodles, cut off a minute or so from the cooking time – they will cook in the soup. For homemade farfel, you can cook them directly in the soup.
- When the soup is ready, you can serve it as is, add noodles or farfel, matzoh balls, and/or another starch – my grandmother likes a baked potato in hers. I like to add a dollop of sour cream to mine. It freezes well.
*Eve Jochnowitz discusses Lithuanian Jewish canning and food preservation in her translation of Fania Lewando’s (hy”d) 1938 cookbook, The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (which you should get). Jews in Europe canned extensively in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Lewando included many recipes for home canning in the book. As Jochnowitz noted, many of those preserving methods would not be considered safe today.
Additional note: In regards to the name, I would like to thank Susan Rosenberg, Yael Wiesenfeld, Josh Schwartz, Sara Liss, Maurice Farber, Donna Druchunas, Tova Reiter, Ilana Newman, JS Biderman, Laynie Soloman, Amanda Jermyn, Shana Carp, Ziva Freiman, and others for their contributions to the discussion about names.