Asian slaw. That seemingly catch all term for mayo-free coleslaw. An endless array of vibrant veggies with a sharp, often spicy, and most definitely not creamy dressing. Peanuts are usually involved, as are limes, fresh coriander leaf, and quite possibly, fiery red chillies.
An Asian-style slaw is a beautiful thing but before you throw at your plate all the vaguely East Asian ingredients you can find, stop and think for a moment. What am I actually creating here?
In this guide we take a look at the salads of South Asia to discover the many sides of Asian slaw.
Asian slaw and salads – a world of possibility
Sparked by an interest in the vibrant flavour profiles of South East Asia, and fuelled by the massive clean eating movement, the Asian slaw became a thing. A beautiful hybrid of nations to nestle against the naked burger and stuff into lettuce leaf wraps, this mayo-free slaw lost all of its identity overnight. There is nothing wrong with taking the flavours of the world and running with them. At all. But when you look at the origins of foods and their cultural identity you gain a whole new respect for ingredients. And open up a world of possibilities.
Yes, there are many similarities amongst the foods of South Asia. But there are also many differences, some more subtle than others. Most of the major cuisines of the region have some kind of crunchy raw salad served with a sharp dressing. Some of them play a supporting role in a vast cuisine, whilst others are regional defining dishes.
Raw salads in China
Owing to the yin and yang elements of Chinese food it is true that there are not many salads in the Chinese repertoire as most dishes are at least lightly cooked. There are however several single ingredient side dishes of raw vegetables dressed in something sharp. Delightfully simple, these elements bring a subtle surprise. A dash of vinegar on a little shredded carrot. Or a sweet and sour turnip pickle.
1 cucumber, cold from the fridge 1/2 tsp salt 1 tbsp rice vinegar 1 tbsp soy sauce 1 tsp sugar 1/2 tsp sesame oil optional 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 red chilli, chopped
Lay the whole cucumber on a chopping board and lightly bash with a rolling pin so it breaks open.
Now chop the cucumber into chunks.
Add the rest of the ingredients and toss to combine
The Asian slaw of Japan
If you have ever eaten tonkatsu you may be familiar with its usual companion of shredded cabbage. Served with all kinds of deep fried food in Japan, this is a simple yet deeply flavoursome version of slaw. Japanese food is all about integrity of ingredients and balance. It is as much about awakening of the senses as it is about nuance of flavour.
1/2 head of white cabbage, finely shredded 1 tbsp rice vinegar 1 tbsp Japanese soy sauce 1 tbsp mirin 1 tbsp vegetable oil 1 tsp sugar 1 tsp sesame oil
Toss ingredients together and serve.
This version of slaw from Korea is very similar to kimchi but it is not fermented. Hot and sour, the vegetables are tossed in a chilli sauce based dressing that is more like a sauce than a dressing in consistency.
1/4 head white cabbage, shredded 1 carrot, shredded 1 spring onion, finely sliced 10 mint leaves, shredded 1 tbsp chilli sauce 1 tbsp rice vinegar 1 tbsp soy sauce 1 tsp sugar 1 tsp lemon juice 1 tsp sesame oil 1 tsp garlic optional 1 tsp fish sauce garnish 1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
Toss all of the ingredients together.
Garnish with toasted sesame seeds.
Salads in Thailand
Thai cuisine is full of fresh vibrant ingredients, often used raw. A famous Thai salad contains green papaya, an ingredient that is not that easy to source outside of South East Asia. The closest we come to a slaw is Thai beef salad, served as a main course, but you can riff on this for a smaller slaw-based side. Go for shredded carrots, ribbons of cucumber, sliced spring onions, beansprouts, shredded mint leaves and finely sliced red chillies. Dress with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, ginger, garlic, and lemongrass. Top with chopped tomatoes.
Look out for our Thai beef salad recipe.
An Indonesian slaw
There is a fantastic salad in Indonesia made from shredded cabbage, cucumber, green beans, Thai basil, and beansprouts. All tossed in a deeply savoury sauce of peanuts, lime juice, sugar, galangal, chillies, garlic and fish sauce. If you can’t get Thai basil you could try adding a touch of our holy basil sauce to your dressing.
Asian slaw in Malaysia
In Malaysia, a similar slaw-like salad is popular to eat with plain rice. Toss shredded green mango, cucumber, beansprouts, bamboo shoots and peppers are in a dressing of dried shrimp, lime juice, sugar and chillies.
A popular Vietnamese salad, usually served as a main course, contains shredded chicken. Toss with plenty of crisp cabbage, carrots, onions, mint and coriander, and dress in a blend of lime juice, fish sauce, chillies, garlic and sugar. Top with roasted peanuts and crispy fried shallots.
We hope that this article inspires you to take your Asian slaw one step further, and maybe discover some of the nuances that separate the regional cuisines of South Asia. Take a look at our range of organic Asian groceries, or head over to our online Asian grocery store.