Salads may not immediately come to mind when Indian food is mentioned. Spice-rich, ingredient-heavy, multistep dishes such as chicken tikka masala, samosas, biryani more often symbolize the cuisine.
A variety of salads, however, are savored throughout India. They differ in style and flavor from region to region and table to table, and usually perform in the background as a crunchy sidekick – an obligatory part of a spread or a palate-changing contrast to a meaty dish.
Perhaps the most common Indian salad in the United States is raita, which is popular in northern and western India. It is made with diced cucumbers, onions or tomatoes, mixed with yogurt and spiced with cumin or mustard powder and garnished with chopped mint or cilantro.
That yogurt-based salad fits into one of the broad categories of Indian salads, which also include cooked, oil-free and tadka-based. Like India itself, with its inexplicable unity among head-exploding diversity, these varied salads often intersect and overlap.
For me, the most intriguing of the lot is a tadka-based salad.
Tadka, also known as chaaunk, vaghaar, bagar, phodni, popu, thaalippu is a cooking technique so omnipresent in India, that most kitchens have a special pot reserved exclusively for it.
Tadka is oil or ghee drunk on spices. Zapping spices, such as black mustard or cumin seeds, in hot fat is the perfect way to extricate – or bloom – flavors. Turmeric is a common addition to the tadka, giving a golden gloss to the dish. Tadka may be the first step of a dish – or the last one.
And, in some states in the south and west – including Maharashtra, where I come from – tadka is commonly repurposed as a dressing for diced vegetables.
Like others from west India, I prefer to use a neutral oil, such as peanut or vegetable, for tadka, preferring a blank canvas for the spices. North and east Indians are partial to mustard oil for their tadka.
To start your tadka, heat the oil in a small, heavy-bottomed pot. To test if the oil is hot enough, add a seed or two. If the seeds start sizzling the instant they hit the oil, the temperature is just right.
As the oil heats, the seeds will start to pop. Once they stop dancing, the oil is cumin-y, mustardy and is ready to inject these flavors and hues into anything that follows, including a sabji, a dal or a fresh salad.
In my mother tongue, Marathi, salad is called koshimbir. Cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and red pumpkin are popular koshimbir ingredients, but I have seen nontraditional choices, such as guava and apple, too. The diced vegetables get an enriching boost from roasted peanut powder that imparts creaminess as well as a protein punch. On top of all this goes the scorching tadka.
The aroma and sizzle unleashed by tadka as it hits the vegetables is a heady sensory experience and a harbinger of the contentment to follow. Tadka magnifies the oomph, bestows richness, tames the grassiness of greens and subdues vegetables until they realize who is the boss and start giving up soppy, slurpy juices.
Until I came to the United States, more than 20 years ago, I didn’t know that salad dressings existed as a category, or that salads were commonly eaten as a main course.
That has changed.
Below, you will find one of my favorite salads – a lunch-worthy tadka-based meal that is bulked up thanks to sprouted mung beans.
I continue to experiment, because you can dress any salad with tadka. A grain or bean salad would each take to tadka particularly well.
And go to town with spices: Mustard seeds, cumin seeds, coriander, nigella, caraway, black peppers, cinnamon, star anise, cloves. Garlic pieces and chile peppers, both fresh green and dry red, can add a satiating kick.
Whether you make it for salad or not, tadka, with its flavor-enhancing, tiny-but-mighty powers, is adaptable, letting you tailor spices to suit your cravings in a variety of recipes and cuisines.
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Koshimbir With Tadka (Indian Salad)
Active: 40 minutes | Total: 40 minutes (plus 30 hours for soaking and sprouting the beans)
This koshimbir is a glorious looking salad of diced vegetables, bulked up with sprouted beans, made creamy with peanut powder, spiced with cumin and red chile powder, and crowned with tadka. It can be a side dish, a starter course or even a light lunch. Substitute vegetables of your choice, such as diced red onions, chopped lettuce, grated radishes, diced fennel and fava beans, or limit the vegetables to one or two.
Make Ahead: The mung beans need to be soaked and sprouted about 30 hours ahead.
Storage Notes: The vegetables may be combined and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 day.
Where to Buy: Peanut powder can be found at well stocked supermarkets and online, or make your own (see NOTES). Dry mung beans can be found at health food stores, Indian markets or online.
FOR THE SALAD
1 cup (4 1/2 ounces) medium-diced cucumber
1 cup (4 1/2 ounces) medium-diced Roma tomatoes
1 cup (2 ounces) coarsely grated carrot, about 1 medium
1 cup (3 1/2 ounces) finely chopped green or napa cabbage
1 cup (4 ounces) sprouted mung beans (see NOTES)
1/4 cup roasted peanut powder (see NOTES)
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon ground red chile (optional)
3 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon table salt or 1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
FOR THE TADKA
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or another neutral oil
1/4 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
Make the salad: In a large bowl, toss together the cucumber, tomatoes, carrot, cabbage, mung beans, peanut powder, cumin, chile (if using), lime juice and salt until combined. Set aside or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.
Make the tadka: When ready to serve, in a small heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, add the oil and heat until shimmering. Drop a mustard seed in the oil; if it starts to pop and crackle immediately, the oil is ready. If not, wait and repeat until one does. Add the remaining mustard seeds, the cumin seeds and turmeric, then turn the heat off. Be careful, as the seeds can land on you while they are “dancing” and burn the skin.
Once the seeds stop popping, pour the tadka over the salad and gently toss to combine. Garnish with cilantro, gently toss again and serve.
To make peanut powder: Put a rack in the center position of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Spread 1/2 cup raw, shelled, unsalted peanuts on a medium rimmed baking sheet. Toast for 5 to 6 minutes, rotating the sheet from front to back halfway through, until the peanuts are dark brown. Transfer the peanuts to a food processor or coffee grinder and grind them to a coarse powder. Storage: If you make additional peanut powder, refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. If using salted store-bought roasted peanuts, adjust the salt in the recipe.
To make sprouted mung beans: To get 1 cup of sprouted beans, soak 1/4 cup (2 ounces) of whole green mung beans in 2 cups of water for at least 6 hours and up to overnight. The beans should sink. Skim off and discard any that are still floating, then drain and spread the rest on a flat plate. Transfer the beans to a wet cheesecloth, twist the ends together into a loose knot, and set it, twisted end down, in a colander over a large bowl or tray. Let sit on the counter for 24 hours, checking every few hours to ensure the cheesecloth remains moist, remoistening as needed. After 24 hours, your sprouts should be about 1-inch long. Rinse the sprouts under running water and use in salads, soups, stir-fries or wraps. Consider sprouting other beans, such as brown lentils, black garbanzo beans and moth beans. Sprouting jars, available online, make sprouting easy. Keep in mind: Warm weather will hasten the sprouting.
Nutrition | Calories: 131; Total Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 340 mg; Carbohydrates: 11 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 6 g; Protein: 5 g.
Recipe from food writer Annada D. Rathi.