The Hindu Business Line
Today, if you like your veggies crisp and your flavours fresh, there’s no end to the salads you can make
That I’m an old edition is woefully apparent to anybody who reads this column. I grew up in a time when cake came in two flavours — sponge and chocolate. When cheese, if it came at all, were in round tins, if it came at all. And salad came on a flat plate, a dispirited array of sliced vegetables without dressing or ceremony.
The salads of our childhoods were unexciting affairs. There was always kachumbar at the table, of course — finely sliced onions, tossed with lime, mean green chillies and sometimes tomato. Occasionally, there was a tangy raita. These were the perfect complements to the chicken curry or dal but not really dishes in their own right.
Then there were those dreary Green Salads — concentric rings of sliced cucumber, tomato, onion, carrot and mooli that officious uncles invariably ordered at restaurants during family celebrations. Or stodgy parboiled vegetables — potatoes, green peas, carrots — smothered in mayonnaise. It was only at the rare five-star buffets that we encountered the classics: Waldorf Salad, crunchy with apple and walnuts; creamy potato salad tossed with dill; and carrot salad topped with fat raisins.
Those lettuce- and rocket-deprived days were not a good time to be a salad aficionado. Still, my mother was one. She returned from friend’s houses with hastily scrawled recipes, and then tossed mushrooms with the tender stalks of kothmir (coriander leavers); or mixed cabbage and grapes. She leafed through recipe books and came up with complex recipes for chicken-mayonnaise salads adorned with litchis and cherries. During Ramzan, when all around her were breaking their fasts with sinful bheja cutlets and seekh kebabs, she tanked up on sprouts and cucumber tossed with lime, sugar and salt.
It was certainly hard work to get a fancy salad on the table. My mother and her friends would drive all the way to K Rustom for ridiculously expensive mushrooms. When Boston lettuce appeared in the bazaar, they were among the first to return home with their scraggly haul, and equally quick to switch to crisp balls of iceberg when those bounced into Mumbai. Every new ingredient was greeted with jubilation. From cherry tomatoes and baby corn to broccoli and feta cheese.
Sad to say, though, the rest of us didn’t appreciate the effort. My brother and I were at the hamburger-and-frankie age. My father refused to eat “grass”. So the bowls of colour and crunch were served mainly at ladies’ lunches — affairs that involved snowy napkins, exotic recipes and a sprinkle of competition.
It was only years later, as a student in Los Angeles, that I discovered the joys of a healthy meal that didn’t involve stirring and simmering on a merciless summer day. But the real revelation was at the university cafeteria. This enormous eatery boasted about 10 counters serving pizzas, tacos, hamburgers and pasta. But come lunchtime, it was the salad bar that was thronged by slender, golden Californians carefully piling their bowls with green leaves, olives and sliced bell peppers and then drizzling them with a yoghurt dressing.
When in LA, my Bengali roommate and I felt we should do as the Los Angelinos did. As the only cookbook we possessed was by Tarla Dalal, we decided to use her assistance. The outcome of our culinary experiment was a chana-tomato-cucumber creation that sat like a rock in our tummies and then like a squatter in our fridge.
This misadventure taught us many things. Primarily that, just as you don’t turn to a Japanese chef for advice while cooking baingan bharta, you don’t turn to an Indian cookbook writer for salad wisdom.
Food historians believe that the Greeks and Romans enjoyed raw vegetables with vinegar, oil and herbs — but over time, raw vegetables slipped down the popularity charts. About 300 years ago, few Englishmen were foolhardy enough to eat salad. It was accepted that the civilised ate meat and grains. Savages ate raw greens, which provided little nutrition and rotted in your gut, just like they rotted on the compost heap.
So poor John Evelyn, the learned author of Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, had to try all sorts of ploys to persuade the reluctant to peruse the first salad cookbook in English. He provided detailed instructions — that fresh leaves should be sprinkled in fresh water, drained in a colander, and then they should be swung “all together gently in clean, coarse napkin”. They should be dressed with oil of a pallid olive green... such as native Lucca olives afford, with vinegar of the best quality infused with flowers and herbs, and with the finest crystals of sea salt. Despite his exhortations, however, it was only in the 20th century that salads became the rage. The American domestic goddesses of the early 1900s emerged from their cookery schools with strict notions of daintiness and sophistication. They made fussy Candle salads (bananas topped with cherries), Perfection salads (moulded in gelatin to avoid mess) and Watergate Salad (pistachio pudding mix, pineapples and marshmallows!)
That was just the beginning. Today, if you like your veggies crisp and your flavours fresh, there’s no end to the salads you can make. Stale bread salad, spinach and yoghurt salad, Thai fruit salad with a green chilli-spiked dressing, hearty Indonesian gado gado with peanut dressing. Or my favourite of the moment — just rocket leaves, chopped pears and crumbled feta cheese.
I’m trying to lure my three daughters. But history seems to be repeating itself. At the moment, they’re much more interested in burgers and frankies.