This story was originally published in TravelDine India by Vernika Awal.
Once rooted in Punjab’s agrarian culture, sarso ka saag is no longer a dish native to the northwest frontier’s hinterlands — it is one of India’s absolute favourites.
My first memory of winter vacations in Punjab is of road trips amid the faint sun and dense fog to Jalandhar, my family home. I’d gaze at endless fields of yellow mustard flowers that lined the famous Grand Trunk Road, and imagine myself running carefree in the sarso ka khet — with a background track akin to Kajol’s in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. After all, the iconic romantic melodrama had romanticised the idea of rural Punjab for us all, and celebrated it like never before.
On reaching home, the afternoon meal awaiting us was permanent and never any different — daadi’s sarso ka saag, makke di roti with masala gur and makkhan, and gajar-gobhi-shalgam achaar. Patiently, she’d explain as she churned the saag, that the real flavour of it comes from the stems (dandal) of sarso, and not the leaves.
A quintessential Punjabi meal
Nothing is more quintessentially Punjabi than a meal of sarso ka saag and makke di roti — it’s earthy, and much like the people of the land, is abundant in flavour, colour and true hospitality.
Historically, saag was the food of Punjab’s hinterlands. The full-bodied, home-churned butter (makkhan), on top of the saag and roti, works perfectly for the physical labour-intensive agrarian lifestyle, as most people tend to their fields. Even if it sounds rich and heavy, its purity, coupled with freshness and its organic composition, makes it a winner in the world of engineered and preservative-laden foods.
“This delicious vegetarian traditional Punjabi winter delicacy is prepared with a power-packed medley of healthy winter greens, i.e. fresh mustard leaves, spinach and pigweed leaves, that are cooked till wilted, and then churned with a wooden blender called madhani. This coarse mix is then tempered with desi ghee, finely chopped onion, ginger, garlic and tomato puree,” says Chef Reetu Uday Kugaji, a culinary expert.
Nourishment in the winters
Not only is sarso ka saag a delicious dish, but eating it in the cold months of Punjab’s harsh winters can also be justified by science. Mustard greens or sarso is loaded with plant compounds and is a powerhouse of nutrients, including soluble and insoluble fibre, vitamins and minerals like iron, folic acid, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium.
A modern-day take
Given its agrarian roots, the saag was, for the longest time, a meal relished largely in the homes and dhabas of rural Punjab. Today, the dish has travelled outside of the home state, and into the restaurants and fine-dining spaces in India and across the world. One of its modern-day interpretations is the Sarso ka Saag Kulcha by Chef Hussain Shahzad, Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, in Mumbai.
How, then, did his version come along? Chef Hussain explains, “We always try to re-imagine and recreate the winter’s quintessential combination of Sarson Ka Saag and Makki Ki Roti on every winter menu at The Bombay Canteen. For instance, last year’s winter menu featured Sarson Ki Kachori, inspired by Ajmer’s kadhi kachori and presented as a dish of corn milk kadhi and garlic chutney, served with mogri kachumber. For this year’s winter menu, we thought of presenting this classic combination in the form of a Sarson Ka Saag Kulcha.”
The seasonally-changing kulchas are inspired by late Chef Floyd Cardoz’s Kulcha Club — the famous pizza-style kulchas he served at his award-winning restaurants, Tabla and Bombay Bread Bar, in New York.
Breaking the kulcha’s concept down, Chef Hussain narrates, “Our Sarson Ka Saag Kulcha comes with traditional sarson ka saag, made with mustard leaves, fresh spinach and bathua, that is stuffed inside a pillowy soft kulcha. This kulcha is cooked inside a tandoor, and is finished with a charred corn salad, white butter and pickled mooli — reminiscent of the mooli ka aachar that is eaten up-north during this time of the year, and corn curd, which adds a perfect creaminess and acidity to the preparation. It is dressed with hydroponically-grown mustard leaves, which infuse a zingy and piquant punch in every bite.”
Recipe for Sarso ka saag by Chef Reetu Uday Kugaji
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 45 minutes
Ingredients and Quantity:
- Fresh mustard leaves (sarson leaves)- 5 bunches
- Spinach (palak)- 1 bunch
- Pigweed Leaves (bathua leaves)- 1 bunch
- Onion – 1
- Green Chillies – 2
- Ginger – 1 inch
- Garlic – 8 cloves
- Tomato puree – ½ cup
- Salt to taste
- Makki-Ka-Atta (Maize Flour)- 1tbsp
- Jaggery – 2tsp
- Red chilli powder- 1tsp
- Clarified butter (ghee)- 2tbsp
For the Garnish:
- Clarified butter (ghee) -1/2tbsp
- Sliced garlic- 1/4 tbsp
- Dried red chillies, broken- 02
For the Topping:
- Dollop of white butter
For the Sprinkling:
- Punjabi Garam Masala- 1/4th tsp
- Clean and wash the mustard leaves in running water.
- Clean and wash the spinach and bathua in running water.
- Roughly shred leaves and finely slice stems.
- Discard the hard stems.
- Remove and discard the stems and wash green chillies. Chop half of the green chillies finely.
- Scrape, wash and roughly cut the ginger,
- Chop onions and garlic finely.
- Put the mustard leaves, spinach and green chillies in a heavy bottomed deep pot. Add roughly chopped ginger, salt and water.
- Bring to a boil and simmer until tender (do not cover).
- Churn and pound to a coarse paste with a wooden mathani (wooden whisk) while it is being cooked.
- Return the coarsely ground saag to the pot, add makki-ka –atta , red chilli powder, remaining chopped green chillies and grated jaggery. Mix Well
- Return to heat and add the reserved liquid.
- Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Adjust the seasoning.
- Heat ghee in a non-stick kadhai add chopped onion fry till translucent, add chopped garlic sauté till light golden brown, add roasted and crushed cumin, add red chilli powder. Sauté over medium heat add tomato puree sauté till ghee oozes out .
- Bring the simmering sarson ka saag to a boil and pour on the tempering, Stir.
- Remove to a bowl
- Heat the ghee in a small pan, add the sliced garlic, light brown it, add broken red chillies and pour over the saag, sprinkle it with garam masala powder.
- Serve sarson ka saag piping hot with makki ki roti with a dollop of white butter/ topped with white butter and along with onion, green chillies and masala gur.
- Mustard leaves and spinach are blanched and cooked uncovered as green vegetables have volatile acids which should be allowed to escape or else the green vegetables lose their colour (become dull in colour) and tend to become bitter in taste. These acids need to escape hence mustard leaves and spinach is blanched or cooked uncovered.
- You may garnish the cooked saag with juliennes of ginger ,if desired.
- You may serve radish pickle / batons of peeled radish along with sarson da Saag and makki di roti.