Where Does Coleslaw Come From and What is the Origin of the Term?

Posted on 20 May 2012 19:01 by EricT

The term coleslaw came from the Dutch term koolsla, meaning cabbage salad. The kool part is the Dutch word for cabbage and the sla part is a Dutch abbreviation of the word salade. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Dutch settlers flooded into New York, so much so that the city was originally called New Amsterdam. They brought with them their recipe for chilled cabbage salad, which today is a mixture of the shredded vegetable with mayonnaise, salad dressing, sour cream or buttermilk with vinegar, sugar and other seasonings added.

The word kool eventually was anglicized into cole. Along the line, the original meaning of kool became a bit confused and many people thought it meant cold, especially since the salad was indeed served chilled. So there was an attempt to turn coleslaw into cold slaw, but it never really took hold. However, the term cold slaw is sometimes seen on restaurant menus, which, to me, is as offensive as tomatoes and carrots in a Caesar salad!

The word cabbage came into the English language in the Fifteenth century and gradually replaced the word cole. The term has persisted in Scotland as kale, which refers to a cabbage whose leaves curl outward instead of inward to form a head. The Dutch word for this was boerenkool, meaning "farmer's cabbage." Today, in the United States, kale, once an important but humble green, is being recognized for its superb nutritional content, and its ability to grow in the worst of soils. Most people think of kale as one specific vegetable but in fact there are many different cultivars, some with different names.


Summer Slaw with Corn
image by Open Source Food

The German version of the word cole exists in kohlrabi, meaning cabbage-turnip, which is another variety of cabbage. It is also present in the word cauliflower, which means "flowered cabbage." The original origin of the word was probably the late Latin caulus, a variant of the Latin caulis which mean simply "stem." This came into the Germanic languages early on. The terms hole and hollow are also related, since originally the word had the connotation of describing a hollow stemmed plant.

The original wild cabbage, which is indigenous to the coastal areas of western Europe and Great Britain, did not form tight heads like the varieties we think of today as cabbage. The leaves grew outwards and the plant more resembled collards and the aforementioned kale than the domesticated varieties popular today.

wild cabbage Wild Cabbage, either Winspit Brassica oleracea or brassica sylvestris, grows along the cliffs of Southern England and Wales

Wild Cabbage which grows along the cliffs of southern England and Wales
image by Sarah Smith

The word slaw, today, is no longer limited to just coleslaw. It has come to mean any type of dressed salad with shredded vegetables. Slaws may be sweet or savory, chilled or warm. But most of them still tend to contain some type of cabbage, probably because cabbage is able to be shredded and still give a good crunch. However, root vegetables, fennel, beets, carrots, and many other vegetables can be used. The main difference, except for the shredding part, between a slaw and a regular salad is that a slaw can stand up to being stored to allow the flavors to meld with turning into a limp, soggy, mess. This does not mean, however, that a slaw has to be kept awhile before serving. In the end, it doesn't really matter what you call, it, as long as it tastes good and has a nice crunch.

Got a recipe for an unusual and delicious coleslaw? Share it in the comments below by writing it out, or dropping a link to yours or someone else's recipe (links are reviewed before approval, but promptly!)

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2. Jack, Albert. What Caesar Did for My Salad: The Curious Stories behind Our Favorite Foods. New York: Perigee Book, 2011.
3. Ayto, John. Word Origins: The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z. London: & C Black, 2006.
4. Ensminger, Audrey H. The Concise Encyclopedia of Foods & Nutrition. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 1995. Print.

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