It won’t prevent cancer, rejuvenate ageing skin or arrest global warming but coleslaw is nonetheless a “miracle food”. Crunchy and wet, creamy and fresh, sweet and savoury, the subject of this month’s How to eat – the series identifying how best to enjoy Britain’s favourite foods – delivers rare complexity in every mouthful. It is also one of the few salads that works with hot dishes, the mayonnaise greasing the wheels of that gastronomic interaction.
Little wonder that Dutch koolsla, originally a way of dressing raw cabbage to make it palatable, not only survived its 18th-century journey to the US but with adjustments (swapping vinaigrette for mayonnaise), was re-exported to global acclaim.
It is the American, mayo-based variety of coleslaw that HTE will focus on here. Not because it is better than its drier, oil-dressed or fat-free cousins that flourish everywhere from El Salvador to Russia, but because, were HTE to delve into all those variations and unpack the explosion in “Asian inspired” slaws, this entry would make War and Peace look like a pamphlet.
So what should US-style coleslaw consist of? How is it best deployed? And what should the prison sentence be if you add pineapple to it? HTE is here to adjudicate.
Components and ratios
Coleslaw presents an established formula for perfection which, at the same time, allows a degree of responsible self-expression. Yet frequently we ruin it. After combining cabbage and mayo, you are free to improvise within rational boundaries – boundaries that the world repeatedly oversteps.
In coleslaw as in life, an irrational desire to assert creative agency trumps all. You know putting pomegranate, bacon or broccoli stalks in coleslaw is a terrible idea, but you do it anyway. A similar instinct encourages people to give coleslaw a coronation chicken makeover (curry powder, raisins), insert strident acidic notes (capers, gherkins, jalapeños) and, most egregiously of all, fold in fruit and texturally jarring nuts.
It is possible to successfully combine apple and fennel, or beetroot, carrot and blood orange – but in a salad. Not shredded into coleslaw. Binding such ingredients together in mayonnaise sets you on the road to disaster.
Similarly, there is no place in coleslaw for: grated cheese (a gummy presence in what should be coleslaw’s cleanly interlocking cogs); radishes or fennel (too assertive, will hog the limelight); celeriac (you are not making remoulade); or cucumber, tomatoes and bell peppers (this is not an opportunity to clear out the soggy, festering bottom of the salad drawer). Meanwhile, raw broccoli, cauliflower and sprouts bring a certain worthy, leathery, cattle-feed quality to a dish that should land with a sparkling zing.
Note: coleslaw must not be drowned in mayonnaise. This is not mayonnaise soup. Pre-packaged versions in which thin, sad strands of carrot and onion swim hidden in sweet gloop are depressing and illogical. Mayonnaise is the more expensive ingredient.
Using vinegar to further season the coleslaw is at best ill-advised and regularly a calamity. See also: coleslaws sweetened (vandalised) with honey or given over to a domineering blue cheese dressing.
The cabbage question
There is a school of thought that coleslaw is not coleslaw without cabbage. That is correct. It started life as a cabbage dish. More importantly, without that cabbage (green preferably, red acceptable), coleslaw lacks much of the crunch, thickness and mineral tang that makeas it so refreshing and physically satisfying.
Into a shredded mound of that base ingredient – shred everything*, no dicing – add red onion and carrot (both essential), and a little celery if the mood takes you. Feel free to loosen the mayo with sour cream or yoghurt to freshen it. If you like a subtle sheen of heat (heat that platforms fellow ingredients rather than shouting over them), add a dab of mustard or a little finely chopped red chilli. Remember to season, season and season again.
*Possessed of some misguided puritanical zeal, coleslaw’s militant wing insist this must be done by hand. In fact, prepping coleslaw is one of the best uses for a food processor.
As well as that creamy lubrication, coleslaw provides crunch and fresh flavours that are a source of pleasure in themselves and a palate cleanser when eaten with moderately greasy foods. Where, for example, would bready Romana-style pizza, buttery jacket potatoes or barbecued meats be without coleslaw’s moist, multifunctional intervention?
As the late restaurateur Wilber Shirley put it in Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue: “I won’t even sell someone a barbecue unless they get coleslaw. If they want a barbecue and they don’t want coleslaw, there’s something wrong with that person. It all goes together.” There is a man who would appreciate how conveniently coleslaw drapes itself over a hotdog or, between mouthfuls of carbs, punctuates a plate of fries.
Coleslaw is constantly shape-shifting, through its many dimensions of texture and flavour, to offer multiple points of inflection and cohesion in different environments.
For example, in its fresh vitality it can add a reviving pep to a platter of cured meats or a burger – both dense with funky, savoury flavours – while, conversely, coleslaw’s vibrant flavours can lift an otherwise bland piece of leftover roast chicken or, in its vegetal spritz, both complement and offset lasagne. Though on the plate, lasagne’s cheese and coleslaw’s mayo may seem to have an utterly different outlook, they are momentarily united by their overlapping similarities (fat, basically).
Coleslaw is also one of the great sandwich fillings. It is divine nestling atop ridged salt and vinegar crisps on sliced white bread (randomly moistening certain crisps but leaving others deliciously rigid), and will bring a crucial layer of texture, moisture and flavour to sandwiches as diverse as roast beef and tinned tuna.
Without wishing to dazzle you with the glamorous details of HTE’s private life, it is a big fan of the 15-second hummus wrap. Take one packet wrap, warm it draped over the toaster, spread with hummus and a generous dollop of any leftover coleslaw you have lying around. It will drip everywhere, over fingers, wrists, plate, worktop, but it is nonetheless quick-turnaround, no-lunch-break food of the gods. You barely need to chew.
As a loose, bendable rule (HTE must be mellowing in its old age), coleslaw works best as a foil to proteins and carbs. That protein may be fat-slicked in some way, the presence of fat forming a common bond between the protein and the coleslaw. But coleslaw works far less well in conjunction with overtly fatty and rich foods, where, instead of offering a lively, contrasting raw veg energy, its mayo seems to cohere with all the other fats on the plate to create a dead-weight implosion – a heavy slog of a meal, rather than an enthusiastic sprint.
Quiche and coleslaw is a one-note case in point, as is omelette or frittata with slaw. A cheese pasty will, conspicuously, fail to achieve a light-stepping grace if you add coleslaw.
This collision is most profound, however, with cheese itself. In a sandwich or on a cheeseboard, the two appear to be natural bedfellows, but – much like the effect of ice-cream on chocolate – coleslaw seems to inhibit cheese from breaking down in your mouth. Normally, cheddar almost melts into a fudgy consistency. But the temperature and lip-coating glossiness of coleslaw throws up an awkward, unyielding, cool-fatty barrier between you and the cheese. It sits in your mouth like a waxy lump.
So, coleslaw: how do you eat yours?