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What Is Cawl?

By John Markley
Updated May 16, 2024
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"Cawl" is a Welsh word for soup or broth. In contemporary English, the name refers specifically to stews that are native to Wales and are made with meat and vegetables, or in some cases just vegetables. Today, cawl is most frequently made with lamb or mutton and leeks, though many ingredients are possible. It is somewhat similar to Irish stew, Scotch broth and scouse, which also are usually made with lamb or mutton.

Lamb and mutton are types of meat from sheep. Meat from a sheep that is less than a year old is referred to as lamb, and meat from an adult sheep is called mutton. Lamb and mutton are common ingredients in traditional Welsh food because much of Welsh agricultural land is used for grazing, and sheep are the most commonly raised herd animal in Wales. Although lamb or mutton is most commonly used, cawl also can be made with other meats such as pork, bacon or beef. Indeed, historical records suggest that it was originally made primarily with bacon.

The most commonly used vegetable in cawl, the leek, is a vegetable related to onions and garlic that are widely cultivated in Wales. Leaks are a frequent ingredient in soups and stews and, like lamb and mutton, they are common components of Welsh food. They also have great symbolic importance, because leeks have been a traditional national symbol of Wales for centuries and are commonly associated with Saint David, the patron saint of Wales.

Other vegetables sometimes used in cawl include the leek's close relative, the onion, or other vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and celery. Parsnips and turnips can also be used. Cawl also can be made with leeks and meat stock, which is water that has had meat cooked in it but does not contain meat. This is referred to as leek cawl or cawl cennin. It should not be confused with the similar-sounding but unrelated food colcannon, a traditional Irish food made primarily from potatoes and cabbage, though colcannon sometimes contains leeks as well.

Cawl is often made one or two days before it is served, because it is believed that this improves the flavor. It usually is eaten as a single course. In some cases, however, after it is cooked, the liquid broth is first consumed by itself, and the cooked meat and vegetables are then eaten separately as the main course. It is frequently served along with cheese or bread.

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