Salads of julienned vegetables have a long history. Cabbage, in particular, was celebrated as a hangover cure in ancient Greece and Rome. The philosopher Diogenes ate only cabbage and lived ninety years. The writer Cato ate cabbage marinated in vinegar for health reasons and died at age 80 after purportedly fathering 28 sons. Cold vinegared cabbage followed the Roman Empire northward, where it was modified repeatedly to meet local tastes.
The first American recipes for cabbage salad call for a Dutch dressing of boiled cream and flour, leading some to postulate that cabbage salad may have arrived in the New World with the Dutch, who called it koolsla (kool – or cabbage — and sla –or salad). In the 18th century that term was anglicised to coleslaw. By the end of the century, the English in New York were calling it cold slaw, a term that some still use today.
What many think of as the classic American coleslaw, a required presence at barbecues, state fairs and July 4th picnics, has a creamy, mayonnaise-based dressing, an innovation that some suggest was facilitated by New York deli owner Richard Hellmann after he began to bottle and sell his wife’s mayonnaise in 1912. His marketing efforts may have included suggestions of how the mayonnaise could be used in recipes like, for example, potato salad or slaw. But Mr. Hellmann was not able to persuade all Americas, and some regions of the country still eschew mayo for slaw dressings that feature buttermilk, a sweet and sour ketchup mixture, mustard, oil and vinegar, sour cream or yogurt.
James Beard notes in his encyclopedic tome, American Cookery, that “There has been, in recent years, a trend to combine coleslaw with other items. Some of these experiments are quite successful, and others are extraordinarily bad. Finely shredded apple as a second ingredient is extremely good, especially if the slaw is being served with pork. Carrot also goes well with cabbage as does a small amount of green pepper. But pineapple and white grapes hold no brief for this palate, and I hardly need comment on one writer who advised using pineapple, white grapes and tiny marshmallows.”
Tiny marshmallows notwithstanding, modern slaws often entirely supplant the traditional green, red, savoy, Chinese or Napa cabbage with other vegetables. Florence Fabricant, in a New York Times article titled “Slaw without Cabbage, is Nothing Sacred?” (August 8, 2001), offers a lengthy, but not exhaustive, list: “Crisp vegetables that can be shredded easily are best for slaw. What first comes to mind, in addition to cabbage, are carrots, parsnips, cucumbers and radishes (especially long white daikon). Celery, celery root, onions, zucchini, yellow squash, fennel, white turnips, bell peppers, kohlrabi, asparagus, jicama and radicchio are excellent. Beets can be used if you don’t mind dying all the other ingredients red. The fruit stand offers unripe green mango, green papaya and even apples and Asian pears… ”
Ingredients can determine a slaw’s ethnicity: Napa cabbage, cilantro, ginger, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil create an Asian slaw; green mango combined with lime juice, mint, nam pla, and sugar is a traditional Southeast Asian or Thai assemblage; shredded jicama with cilantro, lime and red onions seems Mexican; and red cabbage with sour cream, dill and horseradish suggests Russian. Visually, slaws can appear a discrete monochromatic pale green, bright orange, deep magenta, or a vibrant combination of the above. While the invention of that shredding whirlwind, the food processor, may have triggered a slaw revival, a mandoline is the most effective implement for shredding vegetables. It will fine slice cabbage, fennel, onions or peppers and, with the appropriate blade, julienne cucumbers, jicama, carrots, zucchini and radish. A food processor is useful for ingredients like zucchini or carrots, but it will pulverize watery ingredients like jicama or cucumber. If neither of these implements are on hand, however, a large, sharp knife will suffice.
Unlike most salads, which are fragile and should be eaten shortly after they are made, slaws often can be prepared as long as a day in advance and may improve as the vegetables absorb the dressing. If you’ve kept a slaw overnight, drain off any excess liquid and add more dressing, if necessary, just before serving. If you want to use a slaw immediately after it has been made, some suggest salting the ingredients and letting them sit for 30 minutes or so, then draining off any liquid before the slaw is dressed.
While slaws are common side dishes, they can become a main dish if strips of chicken, crabmeat, slices of sausage, shrimp or bits of steak are folded in.