Food writer and author Tara Deshpande on deconstructing Indian recipes for her latest cookbook
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Tara Deshpande is on a mission. She wants people to “eat raw, eat more.” That also happens to be the purpose of her latest cookbook – An Indian Sense of Salad. “The natural flavour of fruits and vegetables can be best enjoyed by eating them raw,” says the passionate cook and author, who believes a good salad should be “fresh, look beautiful and have multiple textures with a memorable dressing.”

Salads may not be an Indian affair, however Tara tested 86 recipes including tips on shopping for salad ingredients in a tropical climate, making a good dressing, plating a salad along with a history on eating salads for this one-of-a-kind cookbook. What makes it stand out is the unique approach—deconstructing India’s traditional favourites like the Punjabi baingan bharta, Gujarati winter speciality undhiyo and Parsi Sunday classic dhansak among others—into their raw forms.

So, how did the former actor come up with the idea of playing with everyday recipes? “It was one of those eureka moments except that I was not in a bath tub instead in the kitchen watching my mom prepare sarson da saag,” laughs Tara explaining how flavour combinations played a key role in the process. “We know mustard and spinach are yum together. Tomato and mustard also taste great. Indian cuisine is highly evolved and over centuries these combinations have pleased the human palate. So why shouldn’t they work in their raw forms?” she asks. She decided to keep things simple by procuring whatever was cheap and locally available. “What better way to go than with Indian classics that everyone understands and loves?” she adds. Once the saag salad worked, she started borrowing techniques from other popular cuisines like French, Japanese and Greek to create fresh recipes.       

Most of the traditional recipes that Tara chose to deconstruct for her book are a result of her memories eating them as a child. "My mother and grandmothers are excellent cooks. My mother’s saag bhaaji is superb, and her vindaloo and dhansak are some of the best I have ever had,” she says. Her recipe selection was influenced by her love for greens, the one component that is crucial to any salad. “I chose them because some combinations were made for each other like miso and turmeric. When I was further experimenting, I realised that the American wilted salad technique applied to our very own sarson da saag." Even the use of local fruits like Bilimbi and Vatamba as souring agents in a dressing instead of plain old vinegar made for interesting revelations for Tara.

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While for the Bharta Japonnaise, Tara took inspiration from the classic Japanese miso glazed eggplant, the Vindaloo salad borrowed from Korean cuisine. “Bibinbap is a favourite with my husband.  It’s a lovely dish comprising rice with vegetables, hot spicy gochujang and a fried egg. I replaced gochujang with Goan vindaloo chilli masala, Goan red rice and a poached egg,” she says.

At a time when regional food is getting its due, Tara’s book makes a wonderful case for indigenous fruits and vegetables. Find a warm salad prepared with Pune figs, an Uttarakhand-inspired salad packed with fiddlehead fern, and a Kashmiri salad that is made with gucchi or wild mushrooms typically found in the Valley. If that was not enough, she spent months to create some unique dressings using Indian ingredients such as kokum and tamarind instead of lime juice and vinegar, and natural sweeteners like sugarcane juice, beets and tender coconut meat instead of cheese. Her biggest challenge was to make modifications without altering the core recipe. “Sometimes I had to give up one ingredient or change one part of the technique, but the aim was to stay true to the form,” she quips.    

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