When Is a Salad Really a Salad?

Food Features
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I sat on the patio of a French bistro one sunny afternoon, considering the menu. The charcuterie plate caught my eye but I really wanted some greens to accompany all that meat. After explaining my thoughts to the server, he recommended the restaurant’s asparagus bistro salad.

The dish that arrived was a beautifully composed plate of asparagus spears, a poached egg and a slab of pork belly, and while delicious, it was not something I would have referred to as a salad.

I’ve since considered this asparagus bistro salad—which could arguably be a take on a classic bistro salad, where frisée was woefully replaced by asparagus—the dish that launched a thousand conversations.

Unlike the words appetizer (a dish of food eaten before the main part of a meal) or dessert (a sweet food eaten after the main part of the meal), there isn’t a clear cut definition of what is a salad.

According to Webster, a salad could be “any of various usually cold dishes” or “a green vegetable or herb grown for salad” or “a usually incongruous mixture: hodgepodge.”

History tells us that salad was first eaten in ancient Greek and Roman times. The root of the word is sal, Latin for salt, which morphed into salata, meaning salted things and perfectly describes the dishes of raw vegetables usually dressed with oil, vinegar and salt that people were eating at that time.

The debate on when to eat a salad is easily just as old, as it was equally as acceptable to eat them before the main part of the meal as after to aid in digestion of either what came before the salad, or what was to come after.

Over time, salads got more complicated. General mixed greens tossed into a bowl and dressed became elaborate, layered affairs. Meats, cheeses and different vegetables were added, regions developed specialties and time marched on until we arrive at the aforementioned asparagus bistro “salad.”

The only part of the definition that hasn’t changed since Greek and Roman times lies in the word “dressed.”

A salad is “A collection of ingredients with a dressing when either composed or tossed together forms a filling side dish,” says James Beard Award winning cookbook author Diane Morgan.

“And if there was protein with it, that could be a main course,” she adds after a bit of thought.

For Morgan, it’s the dressing that ties everything together, turning rice with vegetables or even grapes and green onions from a dish to a salad.

As for the asparagus bistro, Morgan says, “What you got was an egg dish that happened to have asparagus in it.”

“I use the word very loosely at our restaurant,” says Philly’s Richard Landau, chef and owner of Philadelphia vegan restaurant Vedge, explaining that just about anything on his menu could be considered a salad.

“If you go back to French cooking 101, what’s what a salad is; greens and a fresh vinaigrette and I think you need that to build upon to be a salad.”

Amanda Cohen, chef of the veg-centric NYC restaurant Dirt Candy, further bolsters the argument.

“There are a million different salads out there, from egg salad to salad nicoise, but the one thing that unites them all is that they’re a combination of ingredients bound by a dressing. Salads are dishes where the whole is more important than the parts,” she writes in an email.

A salad is “a thoughtful composed dish of vegetables and vinaigrette, a contrast between acid and sweetness with lots of earthy tones and it should be filling,” says Portland, Oregon chef Rick Holguin of Raven and Rose.

Holguin takes it one step further to refine his definition to “good salads” versus “bad salads.”

“It’s all about the ideas and the thought of a dish. I’ve had roasted vegetable salads where I felt it was just a mushy pile of vegetables with a bunch of vinaigrette poured over it and then I did this fall squash salad with roasted apples and squash, frisée and pumpkin vinaigrette. So, I guess it all comes down to the touch.”

This brings it back to a comment Hesser made about there being a tipping point when a dish could no longer be called a salad; “If you have to use your knife a lot, then it’s probably not a salad.”

And what about dishes from across the globe—does a salad need European or American roots to be defined as one?

Seattle chef Jason McClure of Sazerac says absolutely not.

“I see a lot (of salads) in Thai cooking for sure. You see green mango or papaya dressed in a very bright acidic solution of fish sauce and lime juice; I would absolutely describe that as a salad,” he says.

As a native of the Midwest where Jell-O salad is king, there was one final question I had. If it has a dressing, could a salad also be a dessert?

“There is a case to be made that a salad can’t be sweet, with the sole exception being fruit salad. Then again, at Dirt Candy we serve an Ice Cream Salad with lettuce sorbet, cucumber sorbet, yellow beet ice cream, grilled radicchio ice cream, and walnut cake croutons, so that rule is clearly bunkus,” offers Cohen.

The verdict is in. Grab your disparate ingredients—sweet or salty, cold or hot—so long as you have a dressing, salad is on the menu.

Jackie Varriano is a freelance writer based in Oregon. When she’s not at her computer or in the kitchen, you can usually find her elbowing her way to the front at concerts or holed up in the cookbook section of any used book store. She what she’s up to on Instagram @jackievarriano.