100 salads for your table

Tara Deshpande Tennebaum explores Indian traditions, raw foods and the power of the beet leaf

Published - January 27, 2018 02:57 pm IST

While I am yet to make the salads from Tara Deshpande Tennebaum’s book, An Indian Sense of Salad, Eat Raw Eat More, I am definitely assigning it to my ‘comfort reading’ pile. It is about food, has amusing trivia, humour and incandescent pictures taken by the author herself. Deshpande, who splits her time between India and the US, says that fresh and lightly-dressed salads were what she and her American husband missed most when they were in India. “I began experimenting with what was locally available. Indians love beets, but you almost never see a beet leaf in our cooking; it is healthier and packed with more nutrients than the beetroot,” she says.

Local flavours

It took the actor-author two years to finish the book. “Longer, because I didn’t realise how much work it was to cook and photograph 100 recipes. I made 170 salads and we narrowed it down to 100. So I think I have enough for a Part 2,” she says.

Creating flavourful Indian salads should not be difficult for Indians, she continues, having authored A Sense for Spice , a book on Konkani cuisine in 2013. “Our food is organically and naturally vegetarian or vegan. Our dishes are not vegetarian versions of non-vegetarian recipes and have evolved over centuries.”

She started off by deconstructing classic vegetarian dishes to their raw form. As these flavours work beautifully in the cooked version, Deshpande realised that with a few tweaks, they can work in a raw dish as well. Recipes range from a Beetroot thoran salad, Chicken korma salad and even a Thai style banana blossom salad. “I took the wilted salad technique (popular in the US) and applied it to the ingredients of a sarson da saag and it resulted in one of my favourite recipes in this book.” Deshpande believes that there is no better time in history for us to invest in the research of our ancient texts to discover how vegan and vegetarian traditions developed. “As the world is looking to move towards more plant-based diets that reduce our carbon footprint, there is no better place to look for answers than ancient Indian cooking traditions.”

Back to source

Did you know that custard powder came out of a man’s love for his wife who was ailing and couldn’t eat eggs, asks Deshpande, who has peppered her book with similar historical facts. “Half the fun lies in the history of a dish. Why was it made this way, who ate it and how it evolved. I cook better when I understand the recipe.” She says the many things we take for granted today such as white sugar, gelatine or macaroni, are a result of colonisation, war, gender politics and wondrous ‘eureka’ moments. “For example, I learnt that Myanmar has a solid salad tradition — pickled tea leaf ( lahpet ) salad, wing bean thoke , long bean thoke . I was not surprised to learn that Burmese refugees who came to India in the 1960s — and now work as vendors in Chennai — still serve customers thoke at the Burma Bazaar; a noodle salad with tamarind and cabbage.”

Both cooking and writing about food is a labour of love, she says. “I post photos and trivia every day on Instagram. I could spend days locked up in my study with my antique cookbooks trying to find recipes for Christmas cakes in the 18th century or researching versions of Bavarian cream. Like an athlete who runs every day to get better, I cook every day.”

She ‘adores’ Masterchef Australia and keeps herself updated with new cooking methods, though she does make known her healthy disdain for some useless kitchen gadgets, such as the garlic press. “Anybody can cook and everybody should cook. It’s a life skill. Don’t let fancy words and equipment daunt you. My ajji had the same two-burner stove for 35 years and just the 10 pots she used and reused. A mixer grinder was the event of the decade for her and she was a better cook than I will ever be. Whenever I think I’m a good cook, I try making something using just two or three ingredients like a phulka or an idli . And I am firmly put in my place.”

From the East

Deshpande also explores cuisines from the Northeast. “Northeast Indian cooking is a treasure waiting to be explored. I have barely scratched the surface in my book. I would love to do more. I found ingredients there such as hatkora, sinhneh rep, pardi, shiso… and techniques that Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Indonesian cuisine use. The Singju festival in Manipur serves up many versions of salads and I have one in this book that is inspired by those flavours.”

Cook from your gut and heart, says Deshpande. “I have always felt that cooking employs all your five senses. If you close your eyes and drop a papad in oil, the sizzling sound will tell you if the oil is hot enough. And, of course, that sixth sense — a gift only the best cooks have. My mother is one of those. A salad is one dish that can be easily altered to suit your sense of taste. If you do use my recipes, always feel free to adjust the flavours to your palate. Make them your own.”

An Indian Sense of Salad, Eat Raw Eat More launches on January 29. Priced at ₹599 and published by Penguin India, it’s available for pre-order on amazon.in.

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