Tiny ruby balls lay scattered around the field greens dressed in mustard and piled high with pickled mushrooms, chive-marinated baby potatoes, asparagus and citrus segments. The presence of pomelo, more frequently seen in Vietnamese cuisine than in Verona—the theme of the evening’s dinner, hosted in early May by leading Italian winery Allegrini, Italy—had already aroused comment. So no one raised an eyebrow when a well-known food critic studied the jewel-like drops and asked no one in particular, “Is this jam?”
That’s the spirit of the salad today. So full of surprises that nothing’s beyond the imagination. With farms producing ever-newer varieties of greens and vegetables, chefs pushing the experimental envelope and a restaurant clientele ready to upgrade the once-upon-a-time side dish to main course, the salad is ready for its day in the sun. “Going by the busyness of my salad station, I’d say consumption has risen by as much as 40% the past year,” says Manu Chandra, executive chef at Olive Beach, Bangalore and Mumbai, and creator of a salad with salt-roasted beet spheroids that flummoxed a few. “There are a few reasons for this: One, the number of people on low-protein, low-carb diets. Two, people who are conscientiously opting for the healthy choice. And three, the evolution in the very concept of the dish, which is helping people believe a salad entrée can be combined with a starter and a dessert for a full meal.”
Chef Chandra rustles up a smoked salmon salad. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Especially in the summer, it’s just what the doctor ordered to keep the cool among the ladies (and, seriously, office goers) who lunch. Main course salads are predominantly a luncheon trend—the water-heavy lettuces, cooling cucumbers, antioxidant-rich tomatoes and, increasingly, seasonal fruits working to bring down internal temperatures and cleanse the system. “A cold soup, a filling salad and a fruit, that’s the perfect summer meal,” says Narayan Rao, executive chef at The Aman, New Delhi.
It would be a mistake, however, to consider a salad entrée as a low-calorie option. “A salad evolves into a main course largely because of the protein constituent,” says Chandra. “It could be meat, fish, chicken, eggs or even fruits like the avocado or carbs like pasta or rice... Then there are nuts, which are a great topping for any salad, or shavings of cheese.”
Ask him about the perfect salad meal, and Chandra recommends a grilled tuna Niçoise, a built salad with baby potatoes, haricot beans, olives, cherry tomatoes, boiled eggs, onions, parsley and salad greens. The classic choice ticks all the food group boxes, and is light and filling.
But perhaps the newer salad story is playing out in the “New Indian” restaurants. At the fabulously improved Indian Accent at The Manor, New Delhi, chef Manish Mehrotra is putting the finishing touches on his June promotion, called, incidentally, “Salad is the New Main Course”. “No curries, no gravies, no dal, no chawal,” he says. “We’re combining salads with chaats and kebabs. My salads incorporate lettuces, a few vegetables, one or two fruits in the dressing or as garnish, and some nutty flavours, usually through almonds or pistachios. We serve them with a side of naan breads.”
Crunchy: Layered Crayfish Salad. Photo courtesy: The Big Book of Salads
Brushing aside the stagnation of the “green salaat” (roundels of onions and tomatoes, whole chillies and lime wedges) and the indigenous kachumber (the same, chopped finely), stand-alone restaurants such as Infusion Kitchen & Lounge at DLF Cyber City, Gurgaon, too, are going green. Chef Om at Infusion offers the Chaunkwali Nariyal ki Salad, a beat-the-heat concoction of soaked lentils, shallots, baby cucumber, fresh coconut meat, cherry tomatoes and raw mango, livened up with mustard seeds and curry leaves.
No lettuce, and that’s definitely an exception that proves the rule. In fact, India’s new salad wave is rooted in the success of multiple organic farms, boutique backyard operations and techniques that make it possible to grow what are essentially temperate-weather vegetables and greens in ever-hotter temperatures. “A good supply chain is essential for the salad business,” says Chandra, underscoring the fact that most of the constituents are highly perishable, if not completely Indian summer-unfriendly.
And while, as Mehrotra says, greens have moved beyond the standard iceberg lettuce to butterhead, lollo rosso and red oak leaf, it’s still anyone’s guess what will work in the Indian market. “We’ve found it difficult to predict which of the new produce we introduce will pick up volume fast,” says Samar Gupta, who has expanded Trikaya Agriculture—one of the primary suppliers of greens and veggies to five-stars and top-line stand-alones— from 35 acres of farmland in 1992 to 215 acres today. “Bitter vegetables like arugula, endive and radicchio sell like crazy while sweet vegetables like Swiss chard inexplicably don’t.”
That doesn’t stop Indian farmers from adopting the latest technologies and imports to produce of-the-moment greens and veggies. “We farm in the shade, practise intercropping, use sprinklers to maintain an optimum level of moisture,” says Amin Manjrekar, a hotel management graduate who turned his farming hobby into a full-time occupation and now supplies his self-certified organic produce under the label Green Fundas to Bangalore restaurants. “For the greens, we use slow-bolting varieties—basically lettuces, basil and other greens that hold up to the summer heat.”
Sounds like hard work? But as Gupta says, “If growing exotics wasn’t somewhat tough, it would not be rare and also would not fetch a premium price.” Manjrekar is currently working on micro greens, a Californian food trend of flavour-and nutrient-packed miniature versions of spinach, arugula and other salad greens that leading city chefs are already using as garnish or as explosive highlights in regular dishes. “Micro greens make for a very, very special salad,” he beams.
And given the constant innovation of farmers and chefs, salads will continue to make for very special meals. Chandra is proud of his Caesar salad soup, a purée of Romaine lettuce in a fennel stock, served with parmesan foam and a garlic grissini. Trikaya plans to grow 15 new products every year and, Gupta says, they have no doubt that the strategy will work. The light salad has finally acquired the wings to fly.
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