Deep inside, I know that fall has officially arrived. The weather is chilly and pumpkins and apples are everywhere. But my mind — my heart, and stomach — aren’t quite ready to let go of summer. They never really are.
The upside of these warmish October days is that my parents’ garden still has tomatoes. Yes, delicious roma plums. They don’t taste as juicy and delicious as say in August, but they help to console my longing for summer produce. During the hot days of August, the tomatoes are deep red, juicy and intense in flavor. There are Beefsteaks, Roma Plums, Grape, Cherry, and so many Heirloom varieties. Each has their own flavour and personality. They are a tomato lover’s proverbial heaven.
What I find interesting is that watermelon can be easily found this autumn. Weird, I know, but that’s what this weather’s been giving me. Produce that shouldn’t be available in autumn, just is, thanks to farmers in hot, arid climates like Texas and Arizona. It’s hard to get used to this concept, but apparently sweet flavour-packed watermelons are now available year-round in stores like Whole Foods and Save-on. When did this start happening?
So this chaat salad… unites my fanatical love for two summer flavours: watermelon and tomatoes. It was partially conceived due to the weird temperatures. A few days ago, it went from temps in the low teens to high twenties and that was all the justification I needed for creating this salad.
However, my inspiration for the dish is two-pronged. Firstly, I was inspired by the Arabic roasted watermelon salad known as Fatit ‘Ajir, Qursa, or Muleela. It is a peasant dish that is a mish-mosh of flavours, but heavily symbolic of enduring family values. The preparation of it has a ‘stone soup’ (yes, the children’s fable) philosophy since it brings together neighbours, family, and friends. It includes flavours of mashed, roasted watermelon, eggplant, and squash with tomatoes, chillies, and punctuated with olive oil. Fatit ‘Ajir’s is ritualistic in there is a proverb associated to it when served (“An onion served by my dearest friend is akin to a roast lamb”) that loosely translates to: it’s not the food, it’s the company that matters. Beautiful, right?
Secondly, the addition of the peanuts is because of a passage I read in one of my favourite South Asian novels, The Namesake. (Inspiration truly does come from anywhere). The author, Jhumpa Lahiri has the ability to evoke nostalgia with stirring simplicity.
In a paragraph, the main character, Ashima Ganguli tries to satisfy her cravings with a concoction that imitates the flavours of home. Pregnant and in a new foreign country, she misses her life and family in India, so she mixes Rice Krispies with Planters peanuts, chopped red onion, salt, lemon juice and green chili peppers. It is an inadequate substitute for the Indian snack, but a valiant attempt to stall the slippage of sensual familiarities that accompanies removal from Calcutta to the United States.
Essentially, Ashima is missing the taste of Bhel Puri, a mix that includes crispy savoury pastry bits, boiled and chopped potatoes, puffed rice, crumbled papri puris (deep fried chips), diced red onions, chillies, and coriander. Then chili and tamarind sauce are drizzled on. Everything is well mixed and served in a cone. It’s sort of like eating a bag of potato chips (I love chips), except bhel puri is fresh and drenched in a tasty, tangy sauce.
For this chaat salad, I’ve used some of the best elements of Ashima’s peanut mixture and then added my secret weapon of chaat masala, which helps to merge sweet, spicy, and sour flavours. Every ingredient is delicious independently, but spectacular when combined. I expected it to be simple, not Earth shattering. In my head the watermelon would balance out the acid of the tomatoes. The peanuts would be crunchy and the floral notes of the fresh mint would give it that vivacity it needed. It worked! In reality, the flavours were complex. They were different. I was hooked, captivated even. I couldn’t stop eating it.
The pops of colour help alleviate the dreary weather outside. Plus, it’s a good looking recipe that melds flavours and textures. It’s fresh and crunchy. A refreshing side dish to serve with grilled meat or fish. Or if you are like me, you’ll want it as a main dish because you won’t stop eating it.
Watermelon and Peanut Chaat Salad
3 cups watermelon, cubed
1 tomato, chopped
¼ cup of mint, chopped
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
1 teaspoon Himalayan Pink Salt (more if you like it saltier)
2 teaspoons chaat masala
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon chili pepper
½ teaspoon lemon pepper
1/3 cup peanuts
Toss tomatoes and watermelon in a large bowl and sprinkle with Himalayan pink salt. Add the mint. Make the dressing by combining the olive oil and tamarind paste with the spices. Add the peanuts, toss to combine. Pour the peanut chaat mixture over top. Toss gently. Arrange on a platter and trim with any remaining mint. Serve salad at room temperature on its own or alongside grilled fish or meat.