Island Style Sweet and Spicy Cabbage – Recipe

Island Style Sweet and Spicy Cabbage
Island Style Sweet and Spicy Cabbage

More than 20 years ago, I lived in an odd little shared house in Oakland, and one of the other renters was a guy named John, from one of the Caribbean islands. Sad to say, I can't recall which island (possibly Barbados?), but I do remember that he moonlighted in a steel drum band, and we would often cook simple dinners together and hang out in his room watching Golden State Warriors games.

He had this unlabeled bottle of hot sauce that friends would smuggle in when they came from home, and it was unlike any other I'd tasted. There was lots of chili heat, but almost an equal hit of mustard, so much so that the sauce was yellow. Probably similar to this bottle of Lottie's. This sauce could be used at the table, but what I loved even more was how he cooked with it.

The first thing to go in the pan with the oil was always minced onions and brown sugar. After the sugar caramelized a bit, in would go the hot sauce. Then the main ingredient, whatever it was, would be fried in this intensely flavored base.

I don't have this type of hot sauce on hand, and you probably don't either, so I decided to see if I could get a similar result by building the sauce directly in the pan. I liked the result a lot; it was hot, sweet, full of spice, and quite close to how I remember the taste of John's cooking. Today I used this technique on napa cabbage, but you could adapt it to just about anything from potatoes to paneer. Okra would be amazing.

I served this cabbage with dhal puri roti (an Indo-Caribbean flatbread filled with yellow splitpea dal), and Jamaican rice & peas.

I'd love to hear from anyone who is familiar with this style of cooking that begins with sugar and hot sauce in the pan. Are there other niceties to this technique? Is it particular to certain islands?

Island Style Sweet and Spicy Cabbage
Vegetarian, vegan and gluten free
Serves 4 as a small side dish
5 minutes active, 15 total

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 medium white onion, finely diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 jalapeno, thinly sliced (or some part of a habanero or scotch bonnet if you dare)
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1 heaping tablespoon prepared Dijon mustard (double check if you need gluten-free)
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • several grinds fresh black pepper
  • 1 head napa cabbage, cut across the head in 3" wide ribbons
  1. In a wok or large skillet, heat the vegetable oil over a medium high flame. Add the brown sugar and onion, and cook for 1 minute; do not let the sugar burn.
  2. Add the garlic, jalapeno, ginger, mustard, vinegar, thyme, salt, and pepper; stir and cook for a couple of minutes until it is thick, dark and fragrant.
  3. Add the cabbage. Stir it through the sauce, and cover and cook for 3 minutes. Remove the lid, stir again, and then cook until tender. Taste and adjust seasoning and serve immediately.
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Posted by Michael Natkin on Monday, August 30th, 2010 in Gluten-Free or modifiable, Recipes, Side Dishes, Vegan or Modifiable.

25 Responses to “Island Style Sweet and Spicy Cabbage – Recipe”

  1. Reply
    August 30, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    Do you happen to have the recipes for all this stuff you mentioned: “dhal puri roti (an Indo-Caribbean flatbread filled with yellow splitpea dal), and Jamaican rice & peas” It all sounds amazing.

  2. Reply
    August 30, 2010 at 12:32 pm #

    The cabbage looks great! With the dhal puri roti, it reminds me of the Caribbean “bust up shirt” dish that’s similar but the roti is stuffed with meat.

  3. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    August 30, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Yes indeed…. love those Caribbean names for dishes, so poetic. I guess that one is also called Buss-up-shut.

  4. Reply
    August 30, 2010 at 5:15 pm #

    You instruct that we add the onion in both step one and in step two. Could you clarify?

  5. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    August 30, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    Fixed, thank you!

  6. Reply
    August 30, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    Thanks you muchly. I had all the ingredients to make this at home tonight (subbing one habanero for the jalepeno) and it is delicious! I don’t mind the extra heat at all.

  7. Reply
    August 30, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

    I loved reading this story, thank you for sharing it! I can’t wait to try the recipe, too 🙂

  8. Reply
    August 31, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    Wow! That’s going on my list “to try”, it sounds delicious!

  9. Reply
    August 31, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    Ooh, I’ll have to try this now that I live in the land of cabbage.

  10. Reply
    August 31, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Holy crap, I’ve never seen such delicious looking cabbage! Do you think it would work with Savoy cabbage? I just pulled one out of the ground….

  11. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    August 31, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    Hi Cathy – yes, I think it will be fine with a Savoy cabbage. Obviously the texture will be a little different, and you'll need to cook it a bit longer. You probably won't want to use the whole head, napa "melts" quite a bit, like spinach. Should be delicious though! Let me know how it comes out.

  12. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    September 1, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    Hi Rachel –

    I do have recipes for the dhal puri roti and the rice & peas. But I'm going to make you wait for them! I'm not spilling the beans just yet, but will let you know soon :).


  13. Reply
    September 2, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    This looks wonderful. I love cabbage as it is, but add some indian flavors and I’ll be eating it for three meals a day!

  14. Reply
    September 3, 2010 at 1:10 am #

    Nice! When I read Island Style I instantly thought of the Pacific… 🙂 and not the Atlantic!!!
    Obviously in the Pacific they would not use so many spices, funny eh!


  15. Reply
    September 7, 2010 at 6:57 am #

    I’m so glad I found your blog. It’s wonderful. Lots of great recipes.


  16. Reply
    Hungry College Student
    September 22, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    I made this for dinner tonight, and it was DELICIOUS. Thank you. =)

  17. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    September 22, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

    Nice! Glad you liked it and thanks for letting me know.

  18. Reply
    September 26, 2010 at 2:33 pm #

    This is on my list to try soon, it looks so good.

    I fell in love with a Caribbean hot sauce at Mango Cafe in Palo Alto (where they serve foods from Trinidad, Tobago and Jamaica), called Matouk’s. One of my local groceries carries it, but you can find it online too. It sounds like it would be perfect for this dish.

    link to All of the Matouk’s sauces are good and add a hot, sweet, vinegar-y kick. Yum.


  19. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    September 26, 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    Thanks for the tip, Bruce!

  20. Reply
    November 19, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    I was hoping for an interesting new way to prepare cabbage, this looks great! As always, your blog is a real treat, thank you!

  21. Reply
    March 29, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    Great recipe, Michael. It’s on the menu this week.

  22. Reply
    Larry Rathbun
    July 15, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    Was looking to duplicate a Jamaican recipe for spicy cabbage and tried this. Not the right result but was delicious. I could tell it was a cousin to what I was trying to find. I am going to substitute a sweet, spicy chili sauce for the mustard (and trim the brown sugar) and see if I get what I was looking for.

  23. Reply
    August 4, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    Holy smokes. This recipe is BANGING!! I made it with Sierra Nevada’s Honey & Spice mustard and the dish blew my mind. The combination of all the various flavors create an explosion in your mouth. Thank you Michael for this amazing recipe!

    • Reply
      August 4, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

      That’s what I like to hear! I know that mustard you mean, good stuff.

  24. Reply
    January 7, 2016 at 4:13 pm #

    Hi! My parents just came back from Barbados on vacation. They brought me this hot sauce called “Bajan Pepper Sauce”. The ingredients on the label are: Peppers, water, mustard, onion, vinegar, salt, tumeric. Seems to be what you describe. I found your site looking for spicy cabbage! Looks delicious!

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