As I made a salad recently, I realized the heights from which I have fallen. My wife’s part-time job has kept her busy the last couple evenings, leaving me to fill in for dinner duty. Yesterday I “made” or, rather, “assembled” dinner from shashlik and odds and ends I found in our fridge and pantry.
One thing I did make was a salad. But as I put it on the table I realized that before coming to Central Asia I would not have called this a salad at all. Plus, most Americans I know would not call it a salad either. Normally this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me, but we’ll be visiting the States for a couple months this summer and I got a little concerned. What if I serve weird food to people and they think I’m weird? What if I’ve changed in other ways that I don’t even realize? What if I can’t remember what’s “normal” or how to be “normal”?
All fears aside, I do remember that the hallmark of an American green salad is lettuce. Lettuce can be found here but not always consistently, and it tends to be more ragged and worse for wear than the crisp stuff you find in an American supermarket. Lettuce is most often used as decoration, and I have only seen it in a dinner salad once.
It was a sad moment. My wife and I had spend several months in lettuce withdrawal after arriving in Central Asia, but we were soldiering on. One day we decided to take a colleague out to dinner as an expression of thanks for helping us navigate the university bureaucracy. She ordered a salad, and to our astonishment the waitress brought a huge, scrumptious-looking green salad with lots of lettuce. Our colleague dumped all the greens off to the side complaining, “I didn’t know it was going to come with all this.”
We had to restrain ourselves from reaching over and grabbing handfuls of the discarded goodness.
A Central Asian salad is marked by tomatoes and cucumbers. A Central Asian version of a “Greek” salad consists of tomatoes, cucumbers and perhaps a few olives. An Italian salad consists of tomatoes, cucumbers and bit of mozzarella. A Mexican salad consists of tomatoes, cucumbers and chili peppers. A German salad consists of…you get the idea.
One of the more interesting salads I’ve run across is the Kavkasky salad which consists of (you guessed it) tomatoes and cucumbers, plus some salty (but usually very good) cheese. It also features a very generous helping of what looks like weeds. It seriously seems like the waiter simply went out the back door, mowed the lawn and dumped in on the plate.
But perhaps the joke is on me because I eat it. It tastes about like it looks.
Anyway, to return to my salad making, in addition to realizing that my “salad” had little resemblance to salad you might see at an American dinner table, I also noticed that I was slicing the tomatoes and cucumbers rather large and indelicately.
The primary reason for this was that I had small children begging for food, clinging to my legs and doing everything they could to rattle my nerves. There is a delicate balance between speed and safety. I need to go fast to preserve my sanity, but I need to go slow to avoid slicing off my fingers. Thus the salad featured tomato chunks rather than tomato slices.
This got me thinking that for safety’s sake, perhaps I need to move from tomato and cucumber chunks to a deconstructed Central Asian salad. (“Deconstructed” is chef-speak for breaking down the components of a dish with the goal of putting them together in a new way. For example, a deconstructed ham sandwich might look like bread, ham and cheese in three separate piles on a plate. There might even be a little bowl of mayonnaise on the side. For some, this is culinary brilliance, but to others it seems to be the epitome of laziness.)
Me: I’ve decided I want to keep all my fingers intact, so for safety’s sake I’m serving you a deconstructed salad.
Spouse: It appears to be a tomato and a cucumber on a plate.
Me: Yes, exactly. You know, “deconstructed.” It’s all the rage these days.
Spouse: If you didn’t want to cook, why didn’t you just say so?
Me: It is cooking. See, it even comes with deconstructed ranch dressing. Just mix mayonnaise, milk, salt, onion powder and garlic powder in whatever quantities you want. Bon Appetite.