Hot slaw has always sounded like a bad idea to me. In the first place, that old-time dish was based on a total misunderstanding of the name “coleslaw.” The “cole” part has nothing to do with “cold,” it’s just the Dutch word for cabbage, which happens to be kool (sla being the Dutch word for salad). But when coleslaw became widely popular in this country during the 1860s, most recipes for it were called “cold slaw,” and “cold slaw” it continued to be right through the rest of the 19th century.
At the time, Americans were much more accustomed to boiling cabbage than to eating it raw, so it seemed only right that there should be a hot version. Inevitably, somebody (or, more likely, lots and lots of people) got the idea for hot slaw, which was boiled cabbage with the same sort of dressing that would go on coleslaw. Before we’d gotten used to the idea of mayonnaise, that was usually boiled dressing, a cooked sauce tasting a little like mayo but made with milk instead of oil and thickened with flour as well as egg yolks.
I happen to have a mild horror of boiled cabbage, or at least of being anyplace where it’s being cooked. Fortunately, one of the kool things about cabbage is that you can eat it cooked, raw or at any stage in between.
So here’s a luscious, aromatic “slaw” based on the Indian concept of the dry curry. You can cook it as soft as you want, and you can add cayenne to taste.
And good news for picnickers: Coleslaw has to be kept cold, but this actually tastes better warm. (But not for long, because of the danger of spoilage.)
Black mustard seeds are available at Indian markets. They contribute a pleasant crunch and a subtle mustard flavor and will reliably tell you when the oil is hot enough for frying, but they’re quite optional.
I like the cabbage wilted just until it’s limp enough that it will be docile on the fork but with a bit of textural contrast in the thicker parts.
Hot If You Want It Slaw
- Put the oil in a large pan and over high heat add the black mustard seeds. Fry until the seeds begin to pop. If not using black mustard, heat until there is a light haze over the pan.
- Add the shallots and ginger and stir until the shallots are softened, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle in the turmeric and coriander, stir a few times and add the cabbage and salt. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to low.
- Cook about 15 minutes, removing the lid and stirring the contents of the pan from time to time. When the cabbage is wilted to your taste, remove from the heat and stir in the cayenne, tomato and mayonnaise.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.Photo: Hot coleslaw with Indian spices.