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The Never-ending Superfood: Kale

Words by
March 23, 2017
Love it or hate it, kale might not work miracles but it’s a winner from farm to fork: a low-maintenance productive plant jam-packed with nutrients.
Kale. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? By now this long, leafy, sometimes curly, usually green but often red/purple member of the Brassicae family is already well known as a miraculous superfood. Why all the hype? Well, it’s truly hard to find a green that beats kale in nutritional profile. One cup of cooked kale can have only 36 calories yet supplies you with over 1000% of recommended daily value of Vitamin K, 98% of vitamin A, 71% of vitamin C and more calcium, fiber and magnesium than similar greens. It’s been a main focus in studies relating to cancer because it boasts so many antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients as well as glucosinolates, known as the anti-cancer nutrients. It’s hard to argue against: kale is good.

Yet good for you and good to eat are two different things: not all are lovers of this fibrous plant. Some swear by an underwater massage to soften it up before eating. Some like it parboiled and sauteed. Its true claim to fame comes in the form of the kale chip: a crispy, crunchy more palatable way to eat your greens. But others just avoid it at all costs. Known for her ability to say complimentary things about almost any vegetable, the witty and knowledgeable Jane Grigson lumps kale into the “spring and winter greens” category in her 1978 Vegetable Book. Her kale verdict? “Kale I have always hated, though curly kale will pass.” For someone who can wax poetic about the boring Jerusalem artichoke, it’s a harsh verdict to hate this leaf.
illustration © Vibe Jakobsen
In the USA, kale used to be relegated to salad bar displays or cheap garnish for simple dishes, but other countries have long embraced these leafy leaves because they are good growers: they’re hardy, stand up to the cold, and grow relatively rapidly, making for a simple staple food in times when most crops won’t prosper. A descendent of the wild cabbage, current day kale originated in Asia and was brought to Europe around 600 BC, most likely by Celtic travelers. The English finally brought kale to the USA in the 17th century and it has since seen a ferocious rise to fame, finally peaking in 2013.

Blue Apron, a New York-based meal delivery service, chronicles kale’s popularity in the USA, starting with the Los Angeles Times publication of a poem entitled Oh Kale in 1996 and noting 2008 when Whole Living magazine first deemed kale a “powerfood.” Then, 2012 earned the title “The year of kale” according to Bon Appetit. One of the kale’s biggest fans has been Dr. Drew Ramsey, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, who worked to establish a national kale day for the USA starting in 2013. Another kale lover is Kristen Beddard, an American expat in Paris who set up a whole site dedicated to finding kale in France. The site includes information on how to prepare kale and different varieties around the globe. She even wrote a book out of her history with kale in France. For a vegetable, it certainly seems to bring out the extremes in people.
Kale can easily be lumped into one powerful plant category but there are various varieties with distinct looks and tastes. Some might argue the fibrous texture overpowers any subtle taste differences but the four most common kales you can find on supermarket shelves are known as curly kale, Lacinato kale (or dinosaur kale or Tuscan kale), Redbor kale, and Russian (or Siberian) kale. They all share similar nutritional profiles but the dark green versions (usually the curly and Lacinato types) are known to have more aggressive flavours. Russian kale is probably the mildest of the bunch, with a peppery profile. It’s no surprise that Lacinato or Tuscan kale (with its flat leaves and dinosaur-like scales) is popular in Italy, often used in soups and stews like the Tuscan ribollita with beans and veggies.

The rise of kale is a classic Cinderella story: a lowly leafy green gets its day in the sun. Love it or hate it, kale might not work miracles but it’s a winner from farm to fork: a low-maintenance productive plant jam-packed with nutrients.