When Tara Deshpande, an Indian actress, writer, former model and MTV VJ's, Minnesota-born husband, Daniel, moved to Mumbai, he frequently ordered from Shiv Sagar, a pure vegetarian restaurant with ninety-two items on their menu. Only one of these was raw and it was called Green Salad, pronounced 'ek green salaaad' by the man who took the order over the phone. In 1999, this 'salaaad' was about as good as it got in Mumbai-a mix of sliced beetroot, white radish, onions and cucumber wrapped in a tin foil packet with no dressing.
Technically, this is not a salad. But what are salads if not a mix of raw vegetables? There are so many salads, and every one of them is different. Fruit salad, Chef's salad, chicken salad, bread salad, taco salad, noodle salad, Russian salad-the list is endless.
How Tara defines a salad and how does it differ from an entrée or an appetiser? Let's check it out...
The Romans were enthusiastic eaters of salads, many of them differing hardly at all from present-day ones. A simple selection of raw vegetables and they always used a dressing of some sort: oil, vinegar and often brine. And hence they named salad, which comes from vulgar Latin, herba salata, literally 'salted herb'.
It remained a feature of Byzantine cookery and re-entered the European menu via medieval Spain and Renaissance Italy. At first, 'salad' referred to various kinds of greens pickled in vinegar or salt. The word
salade later referred to fresh-cooked greens of raw vegetables prepared in the Roman manner.
Historically, a salad is really more about the dressing than a bowl of leaves or vegetables. A dressing is part fat, such as oil, cream, butter, and part souring agents, such as vinegar, lime juice or tamarind. The ratio of oil to vinegar varies based on individual taste and the type of salad.
It is only one of the many proverbs in early and pre-medieval history dissuading diners from consuming raw salads. In fact, the consumption of fresh leafy greens almost ceased in pre-medieval Europe even though we know that during the agricultural revolution (around 8000 bce) leafy greens were the earliest plants to be cultivated and that the Romans introduced lettuce, carrots and sorrel to many of their occupied territories.
Monastic gardens created by monks were primarily for cultivating vegetables and herbs consumed within the monasteries. Monks grew a huge variety of produce: chives, sage, rosemary, leeks, garlic, heart cabbage, roman cabbage, radish, white beets and fennel.
The medieval period was a time of devastating plagues and epidemics like uenza, cholera and typhus that wiped out entire local populations in Europe. Most cookbooks were written as diaries for nursing the sick, or manuals of the economy at a time when produce was expensive and mortality rates were high. Access to clean drinking water and fresh produce were only for the wealthy.
The European upper class considered themselves superior to and more refined than privileged classes anywhere else in the world. An important measure of superiority was the consumption of cooked food. Cooking was a way of refining food, making it more temperate for human consumption. Those who ate raw foods, hunted and consumed game were declared barbarians. Hunting was a sport for the rich but the consumption of game was not recommended since the hunter was unaware of what the animal ate.
For instance, the Israelites did not eat animals with cloven hooves or meat cooked in milk. The key to being sophisticated was controlling various aspects of nature, domesticating animals, baking bread and removing inauspicious and toxic elements from vegetables by boiling and roasting them.
Mud-covered root vegetables were considered less desirable and consumed by the poor while fruits and vegetables that grew above the ground were the purviews of the rich. Produce such as potatoes and bananas were rumoured to cause sickness-poisoning even-in the early medieval period.
Food historian, Jean-Louis Flandrin, points out that vegetables and fresh produce accounted for less than 10 percent of the recipes in medieval cookbooks in the fifteenth century but more than 20 percent by the nineteenth century.
It was only in the sixteenth century that salads in their raw form reappeared in the homes of the wealthy. By the nineteenth century, salads began to develop into entire meals in America.
The word 'salad' shows up as 'salade' in Old French and then as 'sallet' or 'salad' in fourteenth-century England. Salads began to make a serious comeback by the 1600s. This was also the time the influence of the Puritans, who disfavoured any kind of excess or epicurean pleasure, began to wane. Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook, or The Art and Mystery of Cookery was published in 1660, the year the monarchy
was re-established under Charles II, with the most decadent menus ever to grace medieval Europe. Grand sallets or salads with dozens of exotic ingredients including fruits, vegetables, meat, owers and nuts were a trend at this time.
Europe seemed primed to expand her salad consumption. Evelyn's book makes several important contributions to the salad world. He establishes the idea of eating a salad as a first course and elaborates at length about how salad greens should be washed and wiped. Where Evelyn's book differs from May's is that he employs far less meat and distinguishes between fruit salads and leafy green salads.
Restaurants everywhere in urban India are now preparing salads. There are more salads on a menu than soups. A salad, if well planned and constructed is possibly the best, healthiest course you can eat. So do try and make one at home every week. You can choose the recipe, buy the freshest ingredients and control the salt, sugar and oil. If you have to binge, and a salad you love with all your favourite savours-sweet, spicy, sour. You'll get lots of satisfaction and have a lot less guilt.
The article is an excerpt from the book 'An Indian Sense of Salad: Eat Raw, Eat More', written by author Tara Deshpande, and published by Penguin Random House.