"I know, I know. Yet another watermelon, feta, and mint salad recipe. Do we need one?" J. Kenji López-Alt/Serious Eats
Indeed, but then I opened my lucky dip book at a page with no pictures and two salads - which for some reason left me a little unenthused, but I realise now this was churlish of me, so I shall come back to them. Anyway I turned the page and there was this luscious picture of a very on trend, therefore, possibly ordinary salad. Ordinary! When I was a child I did not know what watermelon was, and feta was an unknown until adulthood. I did know mint - but just for mint sauce and to cook with new peas and new potatoes. These days just about everyone has made one of these salads sometime I'm guessing. Because:
"Every long-lasting, well-liked dish (or TV show or song or actor, or anything, really) goes through a few distinct phases: its creation, its initial burst of popularity, the backlash, and finally its acceptance into the cultural lexicon."
Of course, I'm guessing sometimes the last phase doesn't happen - the backlash is successful and it dies. Most probably because it was just a fad, a craze with no lasting power. This one has obviously survived - to the point that this year - I think in June - a version - the one on the right, is a TikTok sensation. Even though the author of this mini-video and recipe says that “I did not invent this combo, but I swear, it is magical.” How can this be? It went viral, as they say, with millions of views. Surely even TikTok has had versions before? I will admit that the TikTok audience probably doesn't read cookbooks, newspapers or magazines, but surely some influencer has been here before? It's an ancient and classic combination after all. Now admittedly every version is slightly different with the individual touch of the author - the TikTok one is much more complicated than the one I am talking about today, which just has those three basic ingredients plus olive oil and black pepper. TikTok has onions, limes, cucumber. And there are oodles of versions.
Indeed Yasmin Khan - the author of my lucky dip book The Saffron Tales, also says:
"Please treat the measurements as a guide only, you should add as little or as much mint and feta as you fancy."
She also says of the watermelon:
"Ice-cold is still key - there is nothing as limply disappointing as a warm watermelon - so make sure you chill your fruit in the fridge for a good couple of hours before you put this together."
And for her you do 'put it together' in the sense that the ingredients are just layered - watermelon, feta, mint, with a final sprinkle of olive oil and mint. No tossing it altogether. A fact with which J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats agrees, although he is very sure that you need to add lemon zest:
"One: You can get rid of pretty much all of the extraneous ingredients. Two: The quality of the watermelon and, more critically, the feta is of utmost importance. And three: A little zest goes a long way."
And just to show how that TimTok craze is weird in being a craze, he did try to find out when this particular salad burst on to the scene. Difficult to say with certainty he says, but he thinks around 2004/5. So a long time. Long before TikTok. But then I guess every generation has to rediscover what their parents and their grandparents before them, discovered.
It's one of those dead simple things that can get complicated. Even with just three ingredients there are so many things to consider:
The watermelon - you need to know how to choose a ripe one, and J. Kenji López-Alt takes you through all of that, and even though you get the same old stuff about the farmer's market - or your grandparents who grow them, he does admit that we don't all have the luxury and takes you through how to choose in the supermarket.
Sure you need to chill it, but if you're camping on the beach you might not have a fridge, or even an ice-box, or maybe you like it warm anyway.
How do you cut it? Big chunks, little chunks, thin, thick? Diamonds, triangles, squares ... J. Kenji again:
"I like to keep things simple for the diner by dicing the watermelon into bite-size cubes, rather than the cheffy-looking slabs, stacks, or rounds that seem to be popular and require the use of an extra utensil at the dinner table."
I suppose he's sort of right but I have to say that Yasmin Khan's larger slices do look gorgeous.
J. Kenji some more - sorry but his words are useful:
"I bought every type of feta available at my local Safeway and Whole Foods to see how much variation there really is. Turns out, there's a lot."
Well even I, who mostly shops in the big supermarkets, can see there is a world of difference between Greek, Australian, Bulgarian and Danish, the deli and pre-packaged. To me it's mostly a matter of texture - some is crumbly and some is more solid and therefore depending on what you want to do with it you might choose one over the other. Taste is a whole other thing. I prefer the taste of the Danish but then I can't say I have actually tried the Greek - it's so much more expensive. And anyway taste is such a personal thing isn't it?
And like the watermelon - how do you cut it, if you cut it at all. Indeed, crumble or cut? Let alone how much do you use?
I haven't seen anyone talk about different kinds of mint, although we all know they exist. I suspect we are really only talking about common or garden mint. But you could try something more exotic.
Say no more really. It might come down to personal preference, or it might come down to price but so much variation here. Not to mention how much - and when do you add it anyway?
A simple, but complicated thing. A classic that has become everyday. And isn't that wonderful?
What is also wonderful is all the other things that people do with those three ingredients. Taste has 34 suggestions from the salad to christmas tree canapés. The most intriguing one I found was Chargrilled watermelon with feta and mint from Adam Liaw. Also gorgeous looking but a long way from a chilled watermelon salad. Or is it?
And you know, when I went looking for the photograph of this particular dish I found that even that was not original - there were heaps of other variations on the grilled watermelon theme. So much for it has to be chilled. Chargrilled is the exact opposite really.
I see that I was going to go back to the salads I had picked out - Persian garden salad, and New potato salad with a dill yoghurt dressing - but I think I've done my dash today and bored you enough by now. Besides I can find no pictures - or the recipes online. So perhaps not.
Buy the book though - it's gorgeous. I've made a few things from it and they were all good.