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Tossing the kale for ‘sarson da saag’

From using tender coconut as a cheese substitute and even conjuring up a Chicken Korma Salad, Tara Deshpande Tennebaum's exciting new cookbook adds an Indian accent to the salad course

Ceylon tomato salad. Photo: Penguin Random House India
Ceylon tomato salad. Photo: Penguin Random House India

In 1904, a housewife won a contest by Knox Gelatin for creating vegetables in a moulded jelly, doused with mayonnaise. It was hideous but this Perfection Salad soon became a dinner-table staple," says Tara Deshpande Tennebaum. The author of An Indian Sense Of Salad (Penguin Random House India) is talking about the history of salad while plating the Wilted Sarson Da Saag Salad.The tossed salad features baby spinach and mustard green leaves on sourdough bread and has no form, quite unlike the jellied salad she is talking about. “To pay homage to that gelatin salad phase, I’ve created an Imperfection Salad—it has carrot and tomato juice, capers and mustard dressing, and salmon and micro-greens garnish," she says.

This inventiveness and a generous sprinkling of history can be found in abundance in Tennebaum’s third book. An Indian Sense Of Salad doesn’t preach eating healthy or raw, but takes the humble salad and dresses it up in a fun Indian garb.

The idea for the book came after Tennebaum moved to India a few years ago and started missing salads, a staple in her meals in the US. She began cooking salads at home, starting with her favourites and making use of the ingredients available. “Then I had the idea of using local ingredients that everyone can afford and (which) are available. For example, instead of using lime or vinegar for a dressing, why not try kokum or bilimbi? Or sugar-cane juice to sweeten things? Tender coconut is a great vegan substitute for cheese," she says.

Tara Deshpande Tennebaum with one of her creations. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

She decided to do an Indian cookbook focused on salads, and, for a twist, experimented with deconstructing Indian dishes. Her reasoning was that if the elements of a sarson da saag—spinach, tomatoes, garlic, mustard—can work well cooked, why wouldn’t they taste the same in the raw form? Then came other dishes—dhansak, undhiyo and vindaloo. She spent nearly two years perfecting recipes and cooking techniques.

“The recipes have always existed but I have just turned them on their head. I took international techniques and combined them with Indian ingredients," she says. In the Vindaloo Salad, the Indo-Portuguese dish gets a Korean bibimbap makeover with Goan rice cooked with bacon, served with red chilli paste and a poached egg. Bharta Japonnaise has eggplant roasted over an open flame, glazed with mayonnaise infused with wasabi, and served with a miso dressing. “The relationship between Japanese and Indian food is there for the taking. This salad plays on the disparity in the two cuisines—one is restrained and the other is over the top. It makes total sense to combine miso and haldi (turmeric), which are delicious together." The Chicken Korma Salad uses a technique in which cold oil is infused with whole spices and refrigerated for a few days. Once strained, the oil has all the flavours of a korma. “If you don’t want the cream that goes into a chicken korma dish, just take this oil and turn it into a korma mayonnaise and spoon that on top," she says.

An Indian Sense Of Salad is full of such handy tips, from growing micro-greens at home and emulsifying dressings to using things that would normally be discarded, like beetroot leaves. There’s a guide to making salads in a tropical climate and easy recipes for pickling vegetables, and dressings.

For those who like their salads with a dash of history, Tennebaum has turned to her collection of old cookbooks to give a brief history of the dish, from the medieval period to the creation of the iconic Cobbs, Waldorf, and Caesar salads in the US. “I was also trying to understand why we don’t eat a lot of raw food. In the early days, a lot of vegetables were considered poisonous. In India, because we had Ayurveda, anything raw was associated with sickness or penance or abstinence," she says.

Today, salads have become popular in restaurants, where, she says, they often find more space than soups. It is possible to walk into a place and ask for a salad and get something beyond the koshimbir. Tennebaum would rather have you assemble your own salad, with fresh ingredients and a dressing that combines sweet and spicy. Just skip the jelly.

Wilted sarson da saag salad in a karahi. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Wilted sarson da saag salad in a karahi

Serves 6-7


For the salad

500g baby spinach, rinsed and spun

50g bathua or cheel ki sabzi washed and spun

100g mustard greens, washed and spun

50g white radish leaves, washed, spun, finely chopped

16 cherry tomatoes, whole

½ cup red onion, thinly sliced

1 cup fresh corn, flame -roasted on the cob and shelled

½ cup mild crumbled feta cheese (optional)

For the dressing

½ cup cold-pressed unrefined safflower or sunflower oil

2 tbsp unsalted butter

2 tbsp cold-pressed mustard oil

1 tbsp sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar

Juice of ½ lime

1½ tsp garlic, finely minced

1 tsp golden honey

Salt and pepper to taste


Whisk all the ingredients for the dressing together and let it sit for 20 minutes. Tomatoes can be sour, so taste one and adjust the lime and honey accordingly. If you plan to add the cheese, taste it to see how salty it is. Place the baby spinach, chopped mustard greens, radish greens and corn in a small wok. Pour the dressing into a small skillet. Add the sliced onions and warm them over a slow flame until they begin to boil. Add the tomatoes and cook for 1–2 minutes. Use the back of a spoon to press down on the tomatoes so they get a little blistered. Add the bathua and stir for 2 minutes. Immediately pour the hot dressing over the leaves in the wok. Garnish with cheese if desired. Toss and serve immediately. Note: If you are allergic to alkaline vegetables such as taro leaves, omit the bathua.

To serve

12 slices of sourdough bread or brun pao, roasted with tongs over an open flame.

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