This week, we are featuring American picnic and BBQ staples, in anticipation of upcoming 3-day Memorial Day weekend.
Memorial Day is a United States public holiday that falls on the last Monday of May and that remembers people who have died in the country’s armed forces. This year, it will fall on Monday, May 25th. It is also typically the start of the summer days in most US states, although when you live in Los Angeles, you get used to sunshine all year long!
I chose to make a side salad recipe that you will almost always find at a BBQ or a picnic in the US: coleslaw. Although this is probably one the easiest recipes I have ever posted on 196 flavors, beside pa amb tomaquet from Andorra, I often see people buying pre-made coleslaw at the grocery store. Why? It is unfortunate, as these containers full of preservatives do not give justice to this simple yet delicious salad.
Yes, 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.
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 modern coleslaw 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!
The term coleslaw comes from the Dutch term koolsla, which means cabbage salad. Kool is the Dutch word for cabbage and sla is a Dutch abbreviation of the word salad. 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 I served with Salvadoran pupusas a couple years ago.
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, although the term is still used in some English-speaking countries including Ireland, as in the delicious kale-based traditional Irish dish called colcannon that I made a few months ago for Halloween.
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.
There is not just one recipe of coleslaw, and there are even variations with broccoli, or other vegetables. I like my coleslaw on the crunchy side so I usually prepare it on the spot or shortly before eating. If you prefer it a little soggier, just prepare it a few hours ahead.
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 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 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 vinegar.
Recent data show that almost half of the cabbage consumed in the United States is used in coleslaw. There will be a lot of coleslaw served during Memorial Day weekend. I served mine with hamburgers, but feel free to serve it as a salad or side dish to deli sandwiches, or BBQ meats.
Have a great Memorial Day weekend!
- 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
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 and toss to coat.