Weekend menu: Kunal Vijayakar on the watermelon and feta cheese salad
Let’s talk about salad. Shocked that I am jumping into something that is not either full of meat or deep-fried? Indulge me for a bit. It’s October. Most parts of Germany, particularly Munich, have just finished celebrating crisp weather and beer with Oktoberfest. Mumbai is still celebrating October-sweat. The city is hot and sweltering and I am hoping the heavens will bless us with some respite — a second wind of sorts. It’s unbearable though.
The mind shuts down the minute I walk out of the air-conditioned indoors. The idea of eating an oily Indian meal feels as punishing as wearing a lycra bodysuit and walking on Marine Drive in the noon sun. It is under these severe circumstances that my mind has wandered closer to a chilled, sweet, crunchy and salty salad. The watermelon and feta salad, to be precise.
In the last few years, I have noticed that the watermelon and feta salad has appeared in menus all over the city. It’s like Mumbai was desperately looking for a replacement for the Victorian, mayo-filled Russian Salad, which we so ruthlessly threw out of our menus about 15 years ago.
Over 30 restaurants — including Colaba Social, Cafe Zoe, Pali Village Cafe, The Tasting Room, Smoke House Deli, Harry’s Bar + Cafe — serve this salad. Albeit, with their own little dressing twists.
It’s a salad which fascinates me like magic, and it’s impossible to reduce that witchery to words. I have to admit that I am riveted by the utter singularity of this salad. With just three to four ingredients, it’s like a Greek summer on a plate.
The salad is simply large, chunky wedges of marvellously sweet, exuberantly juicy, scarlet watermelon flesh. The fleshy texture and its sweetly emotional flavour then clamouring to be secured by something substantial. Something that would stand up to the watermelon’s extreme liquidity and sweetness. Something that is dense and salty, yet creamy. Something like feta cheese.
White flakes on a crimson landscape. Cold, cold watermelon fruit, crumbled with briny feta. You can even add a handful of roughly torn arugula leaves. The green of the leaves contrast visually with the red and white, adding a herby, nutty flavour.
Now, to combust these flavours and textures, you need a kick in the rear of the salad. And balsamic vinegar brings you just that. That evocative combination of sweet and sour, complex flavours of wood and stewed fruit. It is so difficult to describe the taste. Just drizzle some of that Italian nectar onto the salad and then, as a final flourish, sprinkle the salad with buttery, gently sweet, smoky pine nuts.
With a fork, you sharply cut into the crackling watermelon, wipe up some balsamic dressing, scoop up a couple of nuts, spear in some leaves and shovel it straight into your mouth. You can feel the summer give way to a cool breeze.
Author and TV show host Kunal Vijayakar is “always hungry”. Follow him on Twitter @kunalvijayakar