In my day job writing grants for a maritime non-profit, I sometimes get the chance to visit cargo ships calling on the Port of New York & New Jersey. Besides giving me first-hand experience of the services for which I’m raising money, these ship visits also provide a glimpse into the fascinating but rarely seen world of merchant mariners. Most of these men (and occasionally women) hail from the so-called global South, and when working on board vessels for six to nine months at a time, they maintain tenuous connections with their homelands.
I’ve noticed, however, that they tend to eat as they would at home. This can be challenging when one cook and an assistant or two is serving meals to a 22 person crew representing India, the Philippines, Tanzania, Turkey, Indonesia, and Singapore. Usually the largest segment’s cuisine dominates, with separate meals for officers if they hail from Japan, the US, or Scandinavian countries (as they often do). Other times, the crew might all come from the same country, if not the same region; when that happens, the meals will feature the native cuisine almost exclusively.
If I’m ship-visiting around midday, as often happens, the crew will usually invite me to share their lunch. It’s an honor to receive such hospitality, and a privilege to share what is usually a delicious, well-prepared meal. The recipe below represents my efforts to recreate one such meal that I ate on board a ship with an all-Turkish crew — a dish I now know is called kapuska or kapusta. The version I had did not include meat, and was served with hot barley and thick plain yogurt as well as chili flakes on the side for those who wanted a spicier version. I remember exactly how it tasted — comforting yet simple, rich with flavor but light on the stomach. I regret not asking the cook for the recipe, but some googling has revealed different versions made with the identifiable ingredients of cabbage, tomato products, and pepper-based spices). I’ve tried and tasted and retried and continued testing various combinations of these ingredients over the years. Although this recipe surely isn’t exactly what I had on board that ship, it is delicious. And on a cold winter’s night, it’s comforting, nourishing, and extremely warming. (For those with delicate taste buds, go easy on the spices, especially the hot paprika!)
By the way, if you’re nervous about the cabbage giving off a nasty sulfur smell during cooking, don’t be. I couldn’t tell you why, but I’ve never experienced that phenomenon when making this dish. Maybe the rich spices and onions mask any malodorous emissions, or perhaps the acid content in the tomatoes balances them out. In any case, your kitchen will smell of delicious paprika and tomatoes while this dish is simmering away.
Spicy Turkish Cabbage (Kapusta)
1-2 lbs. stewing beef, cubed (optional)
2 large yellow onions, very thinly sliced
1 3-lb green or white cabbage, cored and thinly shredded (yields about 12-14 cups) Note that green cabbage is tougher than white, and will require a longer cooking time.
2-3 cups tomato purée
2-3 Tbs. tomato paste
1 Tbs. crushed red pepper
1 Tbs. or more sweet Hungarian paprika
1/4-1/2 tsp. hot Hungarian paprika
olive oil, salt, 1-2 cups water
Note: The spices in this dish can be adjusted to taste–there’s no need to make it as hot as I have it here. I will emphasize, however, that good quality spices are key. Many versions of kapusta use pepper paste which I haven’t been able to find. For this recipe, good sweet paprika (preferably Hungarian) is crucial. If you can’t find hot paprika,which is harder to track down, substitute cayenne pepper (you may need to increase the amount) or a high quality Indian chili powder made of pure chilies (not the melange of spices labeled “chili powder” in many American grocery stores).
(If not using beef, skip step 1 and proceed to step 2, substituting olive oil for beef fat.)
1. In a large, heavy pot or braising pan with lid, heat olive oil over high and brown beef in batches, setting aside. Drain all but 2 Tbs. fat.
2. Sauté onions in beef fat, adding olive oil if necessary, until soft, about five minutes.
3. Add crushed red pepper and stir constantly, one minute. Add both types of paprika and stir constantly, 30 seconds.
4. Add tomato paste and stir to combine; then add 1 cup tomato purée and stir to combine, 30 seconds.
5. Add half the cabbage and another cup of tomato purée, stirring to combine. Add 1 cup water and return beef (if using). Cover the pot and lower heat to medium for ten minutes.
6. After 10 minutes, add the remaining cabbage and tomato purée and a bit of salt. (Your tomato products may already contain a fair amount of salt, so add sparingly and taste often.) Turn heat to low and simmer at least 45 minutes and up to two hours–the longer the better. Check every 20-30 minutes, stirring and adding more water when necessary.
The dish is ready when the cabbage and onions are soft and indistinguishable from each other. Serve with cooked barley, Ebly, orzo, or rice and Greek yogurt or sour cream, which helps dampen the heat from the spices while retaining the rich flavor.