Tara Deshpande Tennebaum is a familiar face. After acting in films like Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Bombay Boys and Style, she moved to the US to study at the French Culinary Institute in New York and later Le Cordon in Paris.
In 2004, she started Azalea Catering. She has hosted a cooking show and written books on the food she loves. Her latest book is An Indian Sense of Salad, where she documents delicious salad recipes for a raw-food diet. Let’s get to know more about it.
Many Indians love to overcook their food. So how have you deconstructed classic Indian dishes to their raw form?
Indian cooking is highly evolved. Our flavour compositions are complex and have worked for hundreds of years. Take Sarson Da Saag — we know that spinach and corn and mustard work very well together in their cooked form, so with some adjustments, they can be made to work in their raw form as well. Indians are masters at pairing flavours. We take many flavours, merge them and create a flavour that did not exist before.
Anything left uncooked is perhaps considered ‘salad’. And salad is always an accompaniment with Indian food. How would you convince an Indian foodie to consider having a salad as a meal?
Salads in India are resigned to a teaspoonful of Koshimbir on your thali or a Raita served with Biryani. Our idea of a ‘salad’ is a few sliced vegetables without a dressing. That’s not a salad. For it to qualify as a salad, it must have a dressing. As time is a constraint these days, the salad is the best and fastest thing you can prepare. Dressings can be made and stored in the fridge for weeks.
Vegetables can be cut in interesting shapes that makes it fun for children. The Omelette Salad uses leftover ingredients to make a quick meal, the Jar Salad can be taken to the office and the Caesar Salad is a wonderful meal for the whole family. Leftover Tandoori Chicken in a Tandoori Chicken Salad with Naan crumbs and a dressing made from easily available ingredients like mint and yogurt is a meal in a bowl. It’s your multi-vitamin for the day. It’s fast, easy, fresh, healthy and damn tasty. But this book is not about health first. It’s about flavour with benefits. Vegan food can be very sophisticated and raw food can be beautiful.
Can you tell us about some lesser-known ingredients you’ve written about and how you discovered them?
Northeast India had been an inspiration to me in this book. Its culinary potential is waiting to be discovered. Take Mizoram’s Hatkora or Wild Orange Peel, a version of this is used in Japanese 7 spice, Shichimi Togarashi. Many may not know that the world’s earliest orange trees come from Mizoram. The Bhonsales brought specimens from the northeast and cultivated the first Nagpur oranges in Maharashtra.
Perilla seeds also used in Northeast Indian food is used in its seed form in Japanese cooking as well as its leaf form — Shiso that comes in green and purple. Tadgola, a soft and delicate fruit of the palm tree is a delicacy in the Konkan but not as well known outside India. It looks like an egg and I created the bird’s nest salad around it.
Technically, a salad dressing is part acid and part fat. If vinegars can be used in salad dressings, why not traditional souring agents like Kokum, Bilimbi and Vatamba? To me, tender coconut is a wonderful substitute for cheese. It is so easily and cheaply available in India. You can throw it into a salad everyday if you like. For a country’s cuisine to go global, you have to be willing to turn things on their head. Think out of the box.
What kind of culinary traditions of the cuisines — Japanese, American, Italian and French — did you find that made it possible to marry it with Indian cuisine?
I borrowed both ingredients and techniques. Salads as we know them today, are an American creation. I employed the wilted salad technique to deconstruct the Sarson Da Saag. I combined Miso and Turmeric — oh what an amazing combination. Japanese curry uses turmeric and they also use saffron in their cooking. You will see this in the Japanese Tofu Salad.
In the Bharta Japonaise, I used Wasabi Mayonnaise which is a French Japanese creation, a Japanese sesame dressing and instead of glazing the eggplant like the Japanese do, I smoked it into a bharta.
Can you give some tips on how one can include salads in their diet (if they’re not used to eating salads as meals) and form healthy eating habits?
Start with familiar ingredients. Adjust dressing to suit your taste. I have adapted the flavours in this book to our desi love of sweet, spicy and salty. But the best thing about a salad, unlike a cooked dish is you can make any kind of dressing. Take Paani Puri powder, lime juice, jaggery and some olive oil, shake it up, pour it over sprouted beans. Take some mizuna leaves and crush a tablespoon of puri over it. This way you eat less puri and more protein packed beans, but you get enough fatty crunch to satisfy the palate. Fat is more effective in satiation than carbs.