In A Historical Dictionary Of Indian Food (Oxford University Press), by KT Achaya, there is no entry under salad. For such a rich and varied food culture, this feels like a mistake, but there’s a truth behind it: the quality of produce and water in India has always been variable, so it’s not possible just to wash a few leaves before eating them.
This has resulted in a cuisine that has written salad out of the equation, as shown by my grandma’s reaction to any dish of tender vegetables that still have a bit of bite: she condemns them as “kacha-paka”, or half-cooked, a verdict delivered with a look of disdain and a wrinkled nose.
But times are changing. Consumers are demanding more choice and salads are gaining a place at the table. There’s a lot of ground to make up, though, and I often wonder what future Indian salads might look like. Will they be similar to those of Vietnam, ear-ticklingly hot but deliciously sweet and sour? Could chana saag curry one day be just chickpeas and spinach? Could chutney be repurposed as dressing, to bind fresh vegetables together?
Today’s dish is such an imagining, using some of summer’s most exciting produce alongside India’s most notorious spice duo: cumin and coriander, or dhana-jeera. Cumin, with its brooding flavours of earth and smoke, is balanced by coriander’s light, citrussy, happy-go-lucky character. They are used with abandon in everyday curries, and in ratios that are the topic of much debate. Here, they get a fresh lease of life, and the result is smoky, sweet, crisp and lip-tingling – and perhaps a taste of India’s future.
Chargrilled summer vegetables with dhana-jeera dressing
You can cook this salad on a barbecue or on a griddle pan. The timings are for a griddle pan, so if you’re cooking on coals or wood, cook the vegetables until tender. Use only fresh, strong-smelling spices: if you can’t smell anything, the dressing won’t taste of much. Serves four.
¾ tsp salt
1¼ tsp ground cumin
1½ tsp ground coriander
¾ tsp chilli powder
2 tbsp lemon juice
300g Tenderstem broccoli
2 red onions, peeled
2 corn cobs
First make the dressing. Put four tablespoons of oil in small bowl, add the salt, cumin, coriander, chilli and lemon, whisk with a fork to combine and set aside.
Cut the courgettes lengthways into 0.5cm-thick slices. Trim the broccoli, and break bigger branches into individual stems. Peel the husks and silks from the corn and cut the onions into eighths. (If griddling, separate the onions into “petals”.)
Heat a griddle on a high flame. Brush all the vegetables all over with oil, and dunk the broccoli in oil, so the fronds are coated. When the pan is very hot, lay in the courgettes in a single layer and grill for two minutes on each side, until pleasingly striped, then transfer to a platter.
Grill the onions for five minutes, until soft and blackened, then place on top of the courgettes. Grill the broccoli for 90 seconds to three minutes: you want to cook the stems without burning the fronds, so use tongs to press them down; you could also add a splash of water to create some steam, which will help cook them. Once the broccoli is tender, place it on top of the onion.
Now for the corn, which I like to cook directly over a flame on the hob. Using tongs, hold the cob over a medium flame and rotate every 30 seconds or so, when the kernels start to blister and char: each cob will take around five minutes.
When the corn is cool enough to handle, stand it up in a bowl and, keeping a sharp knife close to the core, cut down the length of the cob to shuck the kernels. Scatter these on top of the salad, whisk the dressing again, pour over the top and gently toss to coat. Serve warm or at room temperature.