When a salad is a bowl of memories
On a particularly hot day in Chandigarh last week, I decided to quickly throw together a salad for lunch. In the weather-induced lethargy, consuming anything more seemed challenging. Only when I sat down to eat did I realize that a salad that took 10 minutes to make, contained ingredients from a year’s travels. It was a flavour diary of the places I had been to and the meals I had savoured there.
Each bite summoned up a different memory. The black pumpkin seed oil had come back with me from Vienna. It coated the salad leaves, imbuing them with a nutty flavour that transported me to a Saturday afternoon stroll through Naschmarkt. At the outdoor market, stalls were laden with produce and restaurant tables weighed by platters of food and glasses of cool, crisp Gemischter Satz, a Viennese white wine. From behind a stall piled high with different types and flavours of olives, a Turkish seller called out to me with a medley of old Bollywood songs, smoothly segueing from one to the other: Yeh jawaani, hai deewani...jawaani jaaneman, haseen dilruba. I tasted a variety of cured meats, sauerkraut from a barrel, and mountain cheeses. But it was the pumpkin oil, an Austrian speciality with “protected designation of origin” status, that I wrapped up in sheets of newspaper and tucked safely into my suitcase.
The tart Kashmiri raisins I had thrown into the salad mix complemented the deep, roasted flavour of the oil. These were almost vintage, preserved way beyond their recommended shelf life by careful storage in the freezer. They were reminders of a trip to Srinagar, when my husband and I celebrated his birthday by splurging on two nights at Almond Villa, a memorable heritage home-stay opposite Dal Lake. One of my favourite memories from that trip is of another berry that grew in the surrounding orchard, watched over by the Zabarwan mountains. The luscious mulberries that I plucked right off the trees stained my hands purple and exploded with flavour when I bit into them. I couldn’t bring those back, so I brought tiny, black Kashmiri raisins that do a stand-out job of making a regular pulao, dessert or salad extraordinary.
There was a splash of sumptuous balsamic vinegar, the very last from a bottle bought at The Filling Station, a speciality store in New York City’s Chelsea Market. Makers of a variety of traditional and infused vinegars, oils and salts, they made me feel like I was at a wine-tasting, asking me to smell and sip as they guided me through their range. It was an eye-opening experience, and I came back with a rich, sweet complex concoction that I use sparingly.
Some of the ingredients I used were gifts brought by friends and family from their travels. Recently back from a boys’ trip to the mountains, my husband made up for his absence with a small slab of Asiago, a cow-milk cheese from Manali. I had been missing the mountains, so with every bite of the cheese I imagined I could taste and see grassy meadows with little wildflowers nodding in a cool breeze. The pepper I ground fresh into the salad came from a friend’s family plantation in Kerala, grown organic and chemical-free.
The final ingredient summoned up a cherished memory. It was a herb-infused sea salt I had bought on a trip to Rio de Janeiro last year. I had accompanied my husband, a sports writer who was covering the Olympics. After a fortnight of experiencing the many highs and lows of the mega event, we made a quick getaway to an island nearby. Canoeing around tiny Ilha Grande, exploring its nooks and crannies, we chanced upon a fisherman just back from a week on the sea. The delicious fragrance of barbecuing meat wafted from his boat. He knew our guide, so he waved us over and passed a couple of pieces. Biting into meat fresh off the grill while bobbing on the ocean in a tiny canoe, I marvelled at how good it tasted, with only big crystals of sea salt slathered on to it. The moment we got back to dry land, I walked into a grocery store and bought myself a kilo pack.
By the time my salad was over, heat and fatigue had been beaten. I felt touched by the same energy and joy I feel while exploring a new place, tasting different flavours and smelling new aromas. And amazed that the feeling can linger in half-forgotten food souvenirs bought so many days and miles away.
One For The Road is a monthly column on personal takeaways from travel.