desi tarbooz & feta salad

Is it even summer if you haven’t had tarbooz run stickily down your chin? It’s the fruit I think of when I read Nayyirah Waheed’s words:

The grownup way to do tarbooz is to build a salad with it, a salad with plenty of salt and umami to balance the sweetness. My desi twist on this summer classic goes a step further- it has sour and spicy flavors and packs some heat. It’s the complete package, and it’s delicious. I have it every other afternoon when everything’s still and drowsy from the loo, and the sun baked walls of our home smell like rained- on earth from the mist of the desert cooler.

You need-

1/2 a small watermelon, or 1/4ths of a big one. Choosing a good melon at the mandi is an art and a science. The right one should feel dense and heavy for its size and have a spreading butter-yellow splotch on its belly indicating ripeness. Rapping on it with your knuckles should yield a ringing thud, not a dull one. A dull sound may indicate that it is spoiling fast. Bark-like spotty brown areas that feel rough to the touch indicate that the sugar’s seeped from its interior, which means the fruit is likelier to be sweet.

1 medium- sized onion. The flatter, the sweeter.

1 katori/ small bowl/ 6 tbsp hari chutney. This forest green dhania-pudina chutney is a staple in every Indian household. I make mine with dhania (coriander leaves), mint (pudina leaves), pyaaz (onion), adrak shavings (ginger), lahssun (garlic), hari mirch (green chillies) and if it’s available, a bite- sized chunk or two of a firm sour mango. Not kairi/ accha aam; that’s the stuff that goes into pickles. I use any unsweet mango I’ve hauled in from my weekly visit to the sabzivala . I use my gut with portions, so I’m not recommending any. Recipes for hari chutney abound online. They’re all equally good; you can choose the one you like the sound of.

store-bought feta. It spoils if it stays too long in the fridge, so buy a size you’re sure to consume within a week of purchase. My preferred brand is Mooz, a Faridabad (Haryana) based dairy products company. Purists will scoff at their feta (it’s like biting into a really salty barfi) but I’m okay with it. Delaktis is another good one; it’s softer and creamier.

a fistful of shelled walnuts

black peppercorns in a mill

Method

Slice the onions into thin wispy rings. Separate the rings.

Put the chutney in a bowl, and throw the onions in for a good rub. Get in there with your hands to make sure the chutney coats every ring. Stow it away in the fridge for 30 minutes; let the onion really soak in the juices.

Cut the watermelon into long, thin, broad slivers. Remove the seeds. Arrange these on a platter in a checkerboard pattern, so the empty spaces in between can hold all the good stuff, acting as pockets of flavour.

Once the onions are done, use them to top the watermelon.

Use a small paring knife to shave a lot of feta on top. You can also crumble it with your fingers, but I prefer the flakes- they melt in your mouth and leave a delicious briny aftertaste.

Crumble the walnuts and sprinkle them everywhere.

Finally, 2-3 twists of your pepper mill over everything, and you’re done.

Serve as an accompaniment to lunch, or with bagfuls more feta, as lunch itself. I can have this every single day. I promise that so can you.

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