On the list of much-maligned and regretfully misunderstood vegetables, the humble kohlrabi ranks high. A member of the brassica oleracea species of plants, kohlrabi often ends up being the last thing used in the farmers market haul or the dregs of a CSA delivery. Its strange octopus-like shape, abundant leaves, and craggy exterior can confuse even the most competent of cooks. Is it a giant Brussels sprout? A miniature cabbage? Why is it sometimes purple and sometimes green? How do you even… cut it?
Like its siblings in the brassica family — broccoli, cauliflower, kale, basically all the fart-y stuff — kohlrabi wears many hats and can be used in an array of delicious meat-focused and vegetarian dishes that are found in many diverse cuisines. It may not look like the most delectable or visually stunning vegetable, but kohlrabi is nutrient-dense, subtly tasty, and worth adding to stews, curries, soups, pickles, and salads. Oh, and you can even eat it on its own — take a smaller springtime kohlrabi, peel back the leaves, and just bite it like an apple.
But first, uh, what is kohlrabi?
Kohlrabi is a vegetable whose common usage name comes from the German mashup of kohl (cabbage) and rabi (turnip). Neither a cabbage nor a turnip but vaguely reminiscent of both vegetables, kohlrabi is grown annually across several continents, including Europe and South Asia. “Broccoli was selected for really big flower buds, turnips were selected for big roots, kohlrabi was selected for a thick bulbous stem,” says Alessandro Ascherio, farm field manager at the Mort Brooks Memorial Farm in Philadelphia. “[The stem] is the part you’re eating.” Ascherio likens the stem of the kohlrabi to the inner part of the stem of broccoli. “If you’ve ever met people who are really into eating the inside of the broccoli stem — there’s this nice white crunchy part — it’s kind of like that,” he says. “It’s not bitter. It’s mild and sweet.”
Because kohlrabi is a hardy vegetable, it grows in spring and fall, and can even be harvested in winters in the Northeastern part of America. “Kohlrabi sits right on top of the ground. As a farmer, at least where I’ve been growing, it’s one of the reasons I like it so much. I can get away with no cover,” Ascherio says. In spring and summer, kohlrabi has a mild and sweeter taste, and the vegetable will typically be smaller in size — more like a baseball than a softball. In fall, it’s much larger, and can be woody if grown too big, which is why it frequently ends up in stews and curries, where it can be broken down gently. But as Ascherio says, “even during the winter it excels as a raw vegetable.” Have some kohlrabi and don’t know what to do with it quite yet? It can be stored for a few weeks or more in the fridge — just check periodically to see that it’s not getting too soft. That’s usually a sign that it’s on the way out.
What does kohlrabi taste like?
Like many members of the brassica family, kohlrabi is subtly sweet and vaguely peppery when you eat it raw. Its texture is akin to a jicama or a broccoli heart, and the faster-maturing spring varieties can be juicy like apples, though rarely as sweet. Heartier varieties that grow in the fall, when they grow bigger, can have less sweetness and more structure (sometimes flavorless and too fibrous, if you get the wrong one), but they will add peppery, mustard-y flavors to curries and braises, and will soften well in cooked dishes. The leaves on a kohlrabi are also edible, when they’re in good shape. “They look almost like small collards or dinosaur kale,” Ascherio says. Add those to any soup or stew, or stir-fry them with garlic by themselves for a side of hearty greens to be served alongside any kind of cuisine.
How do you prepare kohlrabi for cooking?
Kohlrabi, despite its alien appearance, is not as challenging as, say, a pomegranate, to break down for cooking. The first step in disassembling this occasionally unwieldy vegetable is cutting off the leaves and stems that point out performatively in all directions from the bulb. (Save the leaves for cooking if they look healthy and snappy, but discard if they seem wilted and disheveled.) Slice the base off the bottom of the bulb as you would an eggplant or cabbage, then peel the outer layer with a vegetable peeler until the white interior is exposed. At this point, it’s possible to cut your kohlrabi in any way according to the dish you’re making. Match sticks work well for fresh salads, chunks for a stew, and strips if you’re planning to pickle it with other vegetables (or alone, for that matter).
How is kohlrabi used in the kitchen?
“Kohlrabi is actually present in Indian cuisine in almost all different regions — South, North, West, and East,” says Lopamudra Mishra, cook and writer of the food blog Away in the Kitchen, where Mishra features recipes for Indian home cooking. “If you go to India, you would find it is in most regional cuisines but it’s never a star dish. Nobody will say, ‘Oh, I love kohlrabi’ — except if someone is from Kashmir.” In Kashmir, kohlrabi is known as monji haakh — the monji refers to the bulbous part of the vegetable and the haakh the leaves — and it is often cooked with a very simple mix of spices and ingredients. “[Kashmiris] prepare this very basic stew, which hardly has any spices,” Mishra says. “It has asafetida, it has a little bit of Kashmiri chili. Sometimes they may use a little bit of ver masala which is like Kashmiri garam masala. It’s optional. And that’s it.” The leaves aren’t chopped — they’re cleaned and cooked whole with a lot of water, Mishra explains. “It becomes a stew until the kohlrabi is soft and tender but still holds its shape.”
Kohlrabi can also be cooked German style as a side dish braised in a creamy bechamel sauce. It can be eaten like you would a side of braised cabbage alongside meatballs or schnitzel. There are also preparations in Vietnamese cuisine, like stir-fries and herby salads with pickled daikon and carrots. Kohlrabi shows up in Israeli cuisine, roasted. Because it’s such a hearty vegetable that can grow in a range of climates and seasons, and because its flavor is subtle and approachable, there is a recipe for it in more cultures than not. Plus, when the ramps and lacinato kale are all sold out at the market, this ugly little vegetable is almost always there for the taking.
Much like cabbage, carrots, and hearty winter vegetables, kohlrabi also pickles well, both in a vinegar preparation with spices and in an oil preparation, found in many Indian cuisines. “You clean the kohlrabi, cut them into cubes, then rub the spices onto the kohlrabi pieces,” Mishra says of making a kohlrabi-focused pickle. “Some people also like to slightly cook the kohlrabi but you don’t actually need to. You just add the oil. If you are using mustard oil, you heat the oil, then cool it down, and then add it. Add salt. They all will act as fermenting agents.”
For Mishra, kohlrabi is a great choice for a vegetable to pickle and preserve. “I really like kohlrabi in the pickle form a lot because it has a little bit of sweetness. It’s on the sweeter side,” Mishra says. “You eat it with rice and dal. It’s really handy as a condiment.”
Ascherio gets excited about eating kohlrabi raw in salads and slaws, or cutting the vegetable into strips and eating it slathered with peanut butter. And of course treating it like an apple is always an option. Whatever you do, though, don’t count it out: “I’d say in my experience it remains underappreciated,” Ascherio says. “There are a few CSA members who are jazzed about whatever you give them and they’re open to preparing it in any way, but I have not see much excitement — much to my chagrin.”
If you’d like to try cooking with kohlrabi, here are some recipes to get you started:
Lopamudra Mishra’s Monji Haakh, or kohlrabi cooked in Kashmiri Style
Lopamudra Mishra’s Kohlrabi Pickle
Asaf Doktor’s Charcoal-Baked Kohlrabi
Romy Gill’s Kohlrabi Aloo Sabzi
Melissa Clark’s Caramelized Kohlrabi Soup
Vidya Narayan’s Noolkol Poriyal
Jennifer McGavin’s Kohlrabi in Creamy Sauce
Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.