Samui Wining & Dining
Knowing Your Onions

Or in this case, knowing your Brussels sprouts.


16The Brussels sprout. In many ways, this is an irritating little vegetable. To begin with, it’s one of those that your parents forced upon you when you were a child. As in, “. . . you’re not leaving the table until you’ve eaten all your greens!” (Well, if you have any kind of a cultural heritage, that is. It would seem that North Americans are comparatively unaware of Brussels sprouts – but then again their nation is only a few hundred years old anyway. Although neighbouring Canada appears to be a bit more easy-going when it comes to veggies of this ilk.)

      And then, Brussels sprouts are positively smug – just compare them with other vegetables. Carrots? Lop off the end, give them a scrape and they’re done. Peas? Pop open the pods and ping ’em in a pan. But sprouts? No such luck. If you’re from western climes then the chances are that you’ve had to get to grips with these sprouts more than a time or two, and you’ll know that they’re wrapped up tight with their own self-importance. Hack off the end, then spend an age on each sprout, trying to get your fingernails under all the dirty and discoloured outer leaves to peel them clean. But, then, they’re something of a bright light when it comes to nourishment value, so maybe they’ve got something to be all smug about – more of this in just a moment.

Most of today’s common vegetables seem to have a nice clear pedigree. Potatoes, for instance, were being slung around by the Peruvian Incas 8,000 years before the birth of Christ. But nobody seems to know much about Brussels sprouts. They were never any kind of a staple food, or venerated for their magical properties, or traded for wampum or beads. I mean, they must have been hiding away somewhere; new strains of vegetables don’t just appear overnight. But every source on the origins says things like, “fore-runners of the Brussels sprout were most probably cultivated in ancient Rome.” Which is a real get-out clause, and another way of saying, “. . . we might be experts, but we haven’t got a clue.”

      And the reason for this is that the first-recorded evidence of this rotund little vegetable appeared in the capital of Belgium, around the end of the 16th century. And if they didn’t come in from all the New World explorers, then absolutely any new thing that turned up in Europe in the first half of the last millennium simply must have been due to the conquering Roman hordes bringing them in from . . . somewhere else. However, over the next 50 years or so, these sprouts firstly caught on in Holland, and then went on to spread into the temperate zone of all of Western Europe. And they eventually migrated to America in the 1800s, but never really caught on.

      Brussels sprouts were originally taken there by French settlers, to Louisiana, but production declined until after World War 2, when they reappeared in the cooler parts of California. Even today production in the USA is confined to this small patch (by their standards anyway) of about 3,000 acres, which would seem to more than satisfy the demand of the 300 million residents of said nation, and nearly all of that output is frozen for sale in supermarkets. For the sake of comparison, the Netherlands produces an annual total of around 82,000 tons, the United Kingdom the same sort of volume, and Germany something like 10,000 tons – making European production in the region of 174,000 tons a year. The USA produces just 32,000 tons, and that’s spread among twice as many people as their European counterparts.

     Brussels sprouts (brassica oleracea) belong to the cabbage family and, indeed, look just like little miniature cabbages. Just what exactly is it about this family that used to strike dinner-table fear into the hearts of Europeans of a certain age? Well, it’s a safe bet that it has something to do with the way that they were traditionally cooked. Generally speaking, the English habit was to boil them until they disintegrated into a kind of grey mush. And in the case of sprouts, this is absolutely not the best way to go. Firstly, boiling reduces the anti-cancer compounds (see below). And then overcooking produces the characteristic taste and smell of sulphur, the very mention of which brings back unpleasant images of school dinner halls.

      But cook them right – steaming them until the crispness just begins to reduce – and these little guys are one of the superstars of the vegetable world. The cholesterol-lowering benefits are excellent, and the fibre-related components in Brussels sprouts do a great job of binding together with the bile acids in the digestive tract. Sprouts are now known to top the list of commonly-eaten anti-cancer vegetables. They contain ‘glucosinolates’; the chemical starting points for a variety of cancer-protective substances, and sprouts have more of this substance than turnip greens, cabbage, kale, cauliflower or broccoli. Additionally, Brussels sprouts (together with other brassicas) are a source of ‘indole-3-carbinol’, a chemical which boosts DNA repair in cells and also appears to be another additional block to the growth of cancer cells. Plus there is a significant amount of vitamins A, B, C, E and K – not to mention that they contain virtually no calories or fats of any kind.

         And so, what has the Brussels sprout got to do with onions, I hear you ask, no doubt still wondering about the title at the top. Answer, nothing; at least not directly. However, in Victorian England, the grammarian and lexicographer, C. T. Onions, was the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. And such was the nature of his knowledge and expertise that his name became linked with perception and understanding in a wider sense. And so, thanks to the insights provided by Samui Wining & Dining, when it comes to the subject of Brussels sprouts, you now can have every confidence in telling people that you really ‘know your onions’!


Rob De Wet


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