Kunal Vijayakar revisits a time when salads were tastier and doused in mayonnaise, and didn’t sport the ‘healthy’ tag
You ask anyone from my generation, and they will tell you that a salad in the good old days was nothing like the salads we eat today. In fact, if you ever conceived that eating a salad was a healthy thing to do, you would be gravely mistaken. Most salads were swathed in heavy dressing, and contained fattening ingredients. Which, I guess, made them exceptionally tasty, but far from being healthy at all.
The most famous salad in my salad days was the Russian Salad. Which, for the uninitiated is par-boiled vegetables like carrot, French beans and potato, tossed up with boiled eggs and shredded roast chicken or ham, all bound together in a dressing, preferably mayonnaise. I always thought the Russian Salad was a Parsi invention, because there wasn’t an upper-class Parsi whose dinner party would be complete without a cut-glass bowl full of Russian salad garnished with vertically quartered, hard-boiled eggs. But this salad’s origins are indeed from Russia, and it was known as an Olivier Salad in the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The other popular salad was the Hawaiian Salad. Once again, mayonnaise or thousand island, in liberal quantities, forms the base. It’s probably called Hawaiian, not because it originated in Hawaii, but because of the predominance of pineapple — synonymous with the tropics, pina-coladas and Hawaii. So this fat-laden but luscious salad is a combination of pineapples, ham, torn green lettuce, celery, almonds, croutons and shavings of parmesan or chunks of cheddar, creamily tossed in mayo. Alternatively, you could replace the mayo with cream cheese, but it doesn’t reduce a single calorie.
Now, the Waldorf Salad. I have no proof, but Wikipedia says it was first tossed up somewhere between 1893 and 1896 at the Waldorf Hotel (now the Waldorf Astoria) on 49th and Park in Manhattan. I’ve stayed there and asked for the salad and instantly disliked both the hotel and the salad. The big surprises in the salad are walnuts and apples, mixed with celery, parsley, drizzled with honey and lemon, then slobbered with mayonnaise and yogurt, and garnished with raisins, served on a bed of lettuce.
Then, of course, there is the old-fashioned Potato Salad. It’s a salad that in ‘the days’ was usually served alongside grilled or barbecued meats. Once again, there’s mayonnaise. Seems like no salads were ever complete without it. A classic American Potato Salad has boiled potatoes chopped in chunks, boiled eggs, celery, onion, and mustard and then seasoned with ground black pepper. I actually love a cold potato salad with crunchy celery, it perfectly balances out smoked meats. In South Germany, they make a version of it called Kartoffelsalat. This one’s flavoured with vinegar, bacon bits, and chives, and is served warm. In most countries, a potato salad should be served at room temperature, but in Mumbai, if the salad spends a little time in the fridge, it will be in a better mood.
There are many more, but I want to end with my all-time favourite. It’s a salad I ordered almost every time we, as kids, were taken to Gaylord, or Talk of the Town (where Pizza by the Bay now stands), or Society at The Ambassador. I’m talking about the Prawn Cocktail, or Prawns in Cocktail Sauce. Now, I don’t know whether it’s accurate to call this a salad but it’s cold, it’s got mayo, and we always ordered it before main course. So, to me, it’s a salad. It’s also slightly passé to order it, and I notice most fancy restaurants don’t serve it anymore.
It’s lightly cooked prawns, cooled and then stirred into a sauce that is essentially mayonnaise and tomato ketchup spiked with Tabasco, served in a stemmed glass with lettuce. Garnished with boiled eggs and slices of lemon. It’s unfathomably delicious. The origins, some claim, can be traced back to the legendary creator of modern French cuisine in the 1900s, Georges Auguste Escoffier. So don’t e’scoff at me. Believe me when I say you’ll love it.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar