What is coleslaw?
Coleslaw, this ubiquitous cabbage and carrot salad, is probably one of the most favorite American salads, especially during summer BBQs and picnics.
Although this is probably one the easiest recipes, people often buy pre-made coleslaw at the grocery store. It is unfortunate, as these containers full of preservatives do not give justice to this simple yet delicious salad.
Coleslaw is now mostly known as an American salad or side dish, but it has been known for quite some time in various parts of the world.
What is the origin of coleslaw?
In Ancient Rome, cooks used to prepare shredded cabbage dressed with vinegar, eggs and spices. It is generally agreed that the term coleslaw is of Dutch origin, which would indicate that the modern version is most likely a medieval creation with Roman origins.
As mayonnaise is an invention from the 18th century, the basic recipe, as we know it today, is probably not older than 200 years. The addition of mayonnaise in coleslaw actually became popular after a New York deli-owner named Richard Hellmann began selling bottled mayonnaise in 1912.
Richard Hellmann’s mayonnaise was so successful that he decided to close his delicatessen by 1917 to devote full-time to his mayonnaise business. Good move: Hellmann now has more than 30% market share of the $1.2B mayo US business. A lot of it probably used in coleslaw preparations!
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Dutch settlers arrived in New York, which was actually called New Amsterdam at the time. They brought with them their own recipe for chilled cabbage salad.
The original version of coleslaw was probably closer to the pickled cabbage and carrot condiment called curtido that is often served with Salvadoran pupusas.
The word kool eventually was anglicized into cole. The word cabbage came into the English language in the 15th century and gradually replaced the word cole. However, the term is still used in some English-speaking countries including Ireland. For example, it is used in the delicious kale-based traditional Irish dish called colcannon.
Both the vinegar and mayonnaise-based versions of coleslaw appear to have a long history in the United States.
The first known mention of coleslaw in the US occurred in the 18th century, in a cookbook called The Sensible Cook: Dutch Foodways in the Old and New World by Peter G. Rose. This coleslaw recipe called for raw cabbage dressed with melted butter and vinegar.
Today’s coleslaw is a mixture of shredded vegetable with mayonnaise, salad dressing, sour cream or buttermilk with vinegar, sugar as well as other seasonings.
How to make coleslaw
There is not just one recipe of coleslaw. The basic version calls for cabbage and carrots but there are variations with broccoli, or other vegetables. If you like this traditional salad on the crunchy side, prepare it on the spot or shortly before eating. If you prefer it a little soggier, just prepare it a few hours ahead.
Variations of coleslaw
You will find multiple versions of coleslaw all around the world. In Italy, a version with celery root, ham and cheese is called insalata capricciosa. In Sweden, a version with leeks is called Veckosallad. German’s Krautsalat often includes apples and onions. And in the South of US, you will always find buttermilk in the cole slaw dressing.
Some variations of coleslaw also call for various seasonings or seeds, including fennel seeds or cumin seeds. I tested different recipes of coleslaw but I tend to always come back to my favorite.
My secret ingredient for this homemade coleslaw is nigella seeds. I just love this spice, also called black caraway in the United States, or kalonji in Indian cuisine. You’ve got to try this coleslaw!
But you can be creative too, and experiment with various dressings, including buttermilk, sour cream, butter or others. I personally just use mayonnaise. As far as the acidic ingredients, I often use a mix of lemon and white vinegar, but you can use apple cider vinegar.
Recent data show that almost half of the cabbage consumed in the United States is used in coleslaw.
- ½ white cabbage head , shredded
- 2 carrots , shredded
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 1 tablespoon vinegar (red wine or white)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon nigella seeds (black caraway), caraway seeds or celery seeds (optional)
In a bowl, make the coleslaw dressing by mixing the mayonnaise with lemon, vinegar and salt until reaching a smooth consistency.
Add cabbage, carrots and nigella seeds (optional) and toss to coat.