Foogath is something I’ve been eating my entire life, and yet, I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it much until recently.
My mother, who cooked all our meals when I was growing up, always had a vegetable dish at every meal. Sometimes green beans, sometimes aloo-matar, but more often than not, it was cabbage.
I know that cabbage has a somewhat wilted reputation in the West, for being, among other things, malodorous and boring.
But the way my mother cooked it—and indeed, the way that so many Indians cook cabbage—rendered it fresh, piquant, complex, and extremely satisfying. Just the other day, when I was looking through an old notebook with recipes I’d jotted down from my mother’s aunt Patsy, I saw, below a recipe for pastol mince (another great Anglo-Indian/East Indian favorite, to be explored another day), a note saying: “served with rasam and a vegetable: usually cabbage foogath.”
The exact origins of foogath remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. The widely accepted wisdom is that its name comes from Portuguese, a fact testified to by the dish’s prevalence among Mangalorean and Goan cooks, many of whom are descended from the Portuguese who once colonized and lived in the areas around Goa, Mumbai, Daman, and Diu on India’s western coast. It’s a dish that is often cooked by Konkani Catholics for Monti Fest in Mangalore, the celebration of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. Is it related to the Portuguese “refugado,” the soffrito-like mixture of onion, garlic, and tomato that forms the basis of so many Portuguese dishes (and has also made its way to Brazil, where it forms the building blocks of such famed Brazilian preparations as feijoada)? It’s entirely possible, though how and when it dropped the “re” remains hazy, if indeed there is any truth to this theory. It's also undeniable that many foogath preparations bear at least some superficial resemblance to other south Indian stir-fries like thoran, from Kerala. And some Mangalorean cooks maintain that foogath simply means “boiled.” And that’s the wonder of foogath today: it’s simple enough and basic enough a preparation that it can support any number of variations in its preparation and in its origin stories. Whichever way you make it or account for it, though, it’s delicious and easy to prepare, and I recommend you put it right at the top of your to-cook list.
A note: Though cabbage foogath was never made with red cabbage when I was growing up, I've taken the recent cold, grey weather in New York as the only excuse I needed to make my version with the most intensely purple cabbage I could find—a little jolt of color until spring is back in fashion in a few months.
Serves 3–4 as a side dish
2 tsp coconut oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
2 tsp channa dhal
2 sprigs curry leaves, leaves removed from the stem
1/2 red onion, finely chopped through the root
2 fermented green chillies (or regular green chillies if you don’t have fermented), chopped finely
1/2 medium-sized red cabbage, any wilted outer leaves removed, along with the tough white core
1/4 cup fresh grated coconut (frozen and defrosted will work well, too)
Salt to taste
In a large kadhai, heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat until it begins to shimmer.
Add the black mustard seeds and wait till they begin to pop and turn grey. In quick succession, add the cumin and channa dhal and stir for 10 seconds, or until all the spices are fragrant. Take care not to let them burn.
Add the curry leaves and stand back as the oil will sputter when you do. Toss quickly to coat the leaves with oil, then add the chopped red onion and continue to cook for 4–5 minutes, or until the onions have wilted and have started to turn slightly golden.
Add the chopped green chili, cabbage, and a teaspoon of salt and stir fry for five minutes or so, until the cabbage is well-coated with oil. Lower the heat to medium and cover the pan with a lid.
Let the cabbage cook for a further 4–5 minutes until tender.
Off the heat, add the grated coconut. Toss to combine well, taste for salt and adjust as needed.
Serve with rice, rasam, and pastole mince (recipe to come, one of these days!)