The One Ingredient That Makes Classic Coleslaw So Much Better (It’s Probably Already in Your Pantry)

published Jul 3, 2024
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Damn Delicious red cabbage coleslaw in ceramic bowl.
Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

If you ask me, slaw is mandatory at any summer gathering. That said, I take the term “slaw” loosely. I don’t require mayo, or even cabbage, for a dish to qualify as a slaw. Give me a crunchy, raw veg — I’ll even accept corn — and a flavorful dressing, and I’m satisfied. 

If I’m in charge of the slaw, you can bet it will be punchy, salty, and acidic, thanks to my secret dressing ingredient: fish sauce. 

Credit: Lizzy Briskin

What’s So Great About Red Boat Fish Sauce?

There’s a lot to love about fish sauce. It’s a staple in many Southeast Asian cuisines, including Thai and Vietnamese, that adds saltiness and umami to anything from noodle dishes to soups to dumplings. 

Fish sauce is made by fermenting fish with salt (usually anchovies) for up to two years. After fermentation, the fish are pressed to release an intensely flavorful amber-colored liquid that’s either bottled as-is, blended with more or less potent fish sauces, or diluted with water. The sauce is sometimes lightly sweetened with sugar to balance the salinity.

The best fish sauces have a short ingredient list. You really don’t need anything more than anchovies and salt, but if you’re more sensitive to strong fishy flavors, you may prefer a bottle that includes water or sugar. 

Red Boat and Squid Brand both make assertive, deeply flavorful sauces with no additives. Thai Kitchen and Ka’me’s versions are lightly sweetened and more diluted. I prefer the fish-forward taste of Red Boat and that’s what you’ll find in my fridge. I can also use less sauce to achieve the same punch of flavor, so my bottle lasts longer. That said, Thai Kitchen seems to be the easiest to find in mainstream grocery stores, but Whole Foods is usually a reliable source for Red Boat. 

Credit: Lizzy Briskin

What’s the Best Way to Use Red Boat Fish Sauce for Coleslaw?

I always keep a bottle of fish sauce in the fridge to add zing to quick noodle dishes and fruity Thai curries, like a quick coconut chicken curry. In the summer, one of my favorite ways to use this sauce is to dress a colorful veggie slaw. 

Fish sauce is rich in umami and sodium, so it needs to be countered with acid and fat. I use fresh lime juice for acidity and olive oil plus a few drops of toasted sesame oil for richness. Alternatively, mayo or sour cream would make a more creamy slaw. I also like to add a generous shower of grated fresh ginger and a garlic clove (or two, if I’m feeling bold). 

Occasionally, depending on the contents of my slaw, my dressing needs extra sweetness, so I’ll add a stream of honey and whisk things well. The fish sauce is salty enough that I usually don’t need salt, but feel free to add a pinch if you like. 

As for the slaw, I like a base of thinly sliced (or pre-shredded) purple cabbage, plus whatever other sturdy veggies I have on hand. I’ve been known to toss in zucchini ribbons made with a vegetable peeler, thinly sliced bell peppers, a whole bunch of scallions, and slivers of summer-sweet mango. I like to finish things off with plenty of cilantro and something salty and crunchy like toasted pumpkin seeds or crunchy chickpeas. Now you have a slaw that’s ready to party!

Buy: Red Boat Fish Sauce, $7.17 (on sale!) for 8.45 ounces at Walmart

What pantry staple do you rely on for your go-to summer sides? Tell us about it in the comments below.