I encountered what's called "coleslaw" for the first time on the Fourth of July, at a picnic at the home of my graduate school professor. I had come to America from South India for school, and until then, I had no idea what "coleslaw" was.
As it turned out, we had a similar dish growing up that we called "veggie noodles" — which made these commonplace salads sound more exotic and fun to us kids. During many Indian summers, they were a cold, satisfying afternoon snack, served with salted butter crackers and a tall, salty lemonade. Kosumalli (coleslaw) continues to be an integral part of many festival and wedding menus in southern India.
This vegetarian was apprehensive about the American version, however, fearing it might contain some hidden shredded meat. Then I learned that traditional American coleslaws are made with shredded cabbage, mayonnaise, spices and no meat — so similar to the salads I grew up with in South India.
Back then, we ate the most fabulous and juicy carrot, cabbage, cucumber and beet salads, garnished with crunchy soaked lentils and mung sprouts, chopped jalapenos, fresh grated coconut and golden roasted cashews.
The most appealing thing to me about these crunchy salads is that they are thirst-quenching but also healthful and filling. The burst of juicy flavor in each spoonful is cooling in the summer. Last spoonfuls of coleslaw are always in great demand, because the last spoonfuls have the most liquid.
These types of salads span beyond the U.S. and India, I learned. Meeting other graduate students from all over the world, I was fascinated by the variations. At global student events, I'd encounter a Thai friend, a Greek classmate or a Vietnamese student preparing a slaw from his culture, each with different vegetables and dressings and gorgeous refreshing flavors. Yet, at every American barbecue, I would see the white cabbage coleslaw made with the traditional heavy mayonnaise dressing.
What most Americans think of as coleslaw came along with the arrival of mayonnaise in the 18th century, but many international slaws don't contain mayonnaise — or even cabbage. There's a Thai slaw with green papaya, and Chinese broccoli slaw with a soy ginger dressing. Coleslaws can be a light crunchy blend of julienne or grated vegetables tossed in vinaigrette, or shredded vegetables with nonfat Greek yogurt combined with spices and herbs.
Most coleslaws do, however, contain cabbage. After all, the "cole" part of the word comes from the Latin colis, meaning "cabbage."
Coleslaws are versatile, come in all colors and textures and are a perfect accompaniment to summer entrees. They are cool enough to go with a spicy barbecue plate, a burger, hot dog or a sandwich. They are sturdy enough to stand up for themselves with a fancier meal and can be a refreshing lunch wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla or scooped up in bite-sized pita or multigrain chips.
Now, each time I go to a July Fourth picnic or a barbecue, I do my part to try out a new coleslaw. There's nothing commonplace in any of these "veggie noodles."