From chicken korma to sarson ka saag: Can Indian dishes be turned into light salads?

Tara Deshpande Tennebaum’s book ‘An Indian Sense of Salad’ offers ways to make salads a regular feature on home menus.

“No one thinks of eating Indian vegetables and greens as salads,” said Tara Deshpande Tennebaum, a trained chef and author. “There’s mustard, bathua (lamb’s quarter), amaranth and even radish and beetroot leaves, but we hardly eat them raw.”

Tennebaum’s latest book An Indian Sense of Salad – Eat Raw, Eat More addresses this cultural idiosyncrasy by offering ways to make salads a regular feature on home menus. It’s a book that’s based on lessons learned over the years in her own kitchen. When she moved back to Mumbai after spending a few years in the US, she missed the fresh, lightly-dressed salads she ate there. That is when she started experimenting with local produce to create her own recipes at home.

“I thought surely there has to be other stuff than the ridiculously expensive romaine that I could work with,” she said. “And that’s when I realised that there’re all these greens. Something as basic and tender as baby methi (fenugreek) tastes good when eaten raw. First I think of the ingredients and then the methods and recipe start coming together.”

Apart from the greens that are commonly available in large cities, Tennebaum has worked with produce that is native to the different regions of India. She uses the fiddlehead fern – commonly known as languda, kasrod or niyuri – which is grown in Uttarakhand and the North East. She pairs the fern with pomelo and dresses it with sesame oil, rhododendron syrup, lime juice and cumin and coriander powders. Tender coconut is used as a substitute for cheese because, she said, “it’s local, inexpensive and great for those who are lactose intolerant.”

Bringing the same spirit to dressings, Tennebaum moves away from the standard olive oil-balsamic vinegar combination and chooses instead to work with sesame, mustard and coconut oils, using kokum or tamarind juice as souring agents.

Interesting history

While the book – which Tennebaum started working on four years ago – is predominantly a collection of recipes, she has put in considerable research. “All of it started coming together when I started reading about the history of salads,” she said. The etymology of the word is Roman – salata which means salted water – and the Romans were the first to dip greens in salted water to kill germs and bacteria, and then eat them.

Tennebaum also writes about the evolution of salad – “It’s America that has re-imagined the salad and taken it from leaves dipped in salted water to everything from an appetiser, amuse bouche, luncheon dish, the only dish for dinner, etc.” One reason why eating green salads is not mainstream in India is perhaps because it can be challenging to buy and process raw foods in a hot and humid climate.

“As people have more and more disposable income and less time, salad is a great option where you can just throw together whatever is fresh and make it into a meal,” she said. “In India, while we’ve had our koshimbir, eating raw vegetables has always been seen as a form of restrain or fasting.”

To encourage Indian cooks to make salads their own, Tennebaum also shares tips and tricks that come in handy while working with local greens and ingredients.

Wilted corn spinach tomato.
Wilted corn spinach tomato.

Deconstructing dishes

In the book, Tennebaum has turned quite a few classic Indian dishes into a salad – “Take any Indian dish and break it down to its ingredients. If these flavours work in the cooked form, why can’t they work in [their] raw form?”

In her Wilted Sarson Da Saag Salad, Tennebaum uses an American technique called wilting the salad. The dressing is lightly heated, just until bubbles start to form and then poured over the salad which is composed of mustard, spinach, and bathua greens, garlic, tomato, red onion and corn cobb. This process doesn’t cook the salad – it just makes it softer. And served on a bruschetta, it’s a whole meal.

The Warm Undhiyo Salad is another recipe in which she experiments with a complex dish that is traditionally made in Gujarat with winter root vegetables. The vegetables used in undhiyo are high on oxalates and hence have to be baked through to be consumed.

Tennebaum also uses the passive-infusion technique to make flavoured oils. “I wanted to move away from tadka and phodni, which we do with our raita and koshimbir. The whole function of tadka is to release the flavour of the spice. So either I grind all the spices or I use passive infusion.”

In her Chicken Korma Salad – one of her favourites from the book – she adds whole spices to room-temperature oil and stores it in a jar. After overnight refrigeration, the oil has the aroma and flavour of the korma. There’s also a recipe for saffron oil made using the same technique.

Chicken korma salad.
Chicken korma salad.

Chicken Korma Salad Recipe

For the salad
3 cups chopped boneless, skinless, leftover chicken pieces
¼ cup celery with leaves, very finely chopped
¼ cup unsalted, roasted cashew pieces
1 red onion, sliced thinly into rings
½ cup light cream
1 tsp red chilli hot sauce or to taste

For the dressing
2 tbsp saffron oil*
¼ cup vegetable oil
1-inch turmeric root
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 tsp ginger root, fresh grated
1 tsp coriander seeds, roasted, lightly pounded
1 tsp cumin seeds, roasted, lightly pounded
1 tsp red chilli flakes, crushed
Juice of ½ lime
¼ tsp sugar
1 tbsp tomato paste

*To make saffron oil combine 500ml unflavoured, refined rice bran oil and 12 saffron threads crushed in a mortar and pestle. Keep this mixture in a jar, shake well and let it sit at room temperature for 2 hours in a cool and dry corner of your kitchen. Refrigerate for a week. Shake occasionally during this time. This keeps refrigerated for one month.

1. Combine all the ingredients for the dressing in a jar. Shake well and refrigerate overnight. Remove from the fridge and strain. Discard the strained bits and pieces.
2. Whisk the dressing into the light cream.
3. Toss the remaining ingredients for the salad together.
4. Spoon the dressing over the chicken and toss again. Use only as much dressing as required to lightly coat the salad. Stir well and adjust the seasoning if required.
5. Top with celery leaves and cashew pieces.
6. Serve cold with melba toast or crackers.

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