Growing up in Delhi, India, winter was a season filled with fancy festival foods and holiday treats. A season also of simple yet glorious, everyday treats like warm roasted peanuts in their shell from the vendor at the street corner, and gajak, the crisp, flaky brittle-like sesame seed confection. A time to bask in the warm sunshine of the days, and enjoy piping-hot, hearty dinners with the family before surrendering to the cold, cold nights snuggled under piles of blankets and duvets.
Winter greens were welcome in every kitchen. Nothing embodied the essence of these greens more than sarson da saag, a mess of mustard greens, a food traditional to the neighboring state of Punjab, served with corn flatbread called makki di roti and generous dollops of homemade white butter; soul food from the land of the five Himalayan rivers and fertile valleys, the bread basket of India, home to a hardworking, spirited, optimistic, courageous people with a unique joie de vivre (Punjab is also the birthplace of the Sikh religion, and of the popular Bhangra dance form). The dish originated as a seasonally prepared, rustic farmer’s meal, simmered slowly atop communal stoves in the village. Sarson da saag began its rise to popularity as a food served at dhabas, the roadside open-air restaurants frequented by truck drivers crisscrossing the highway in their colorful vehicles.
When I was about 8 or 9, new neighbors from the Punjab moved in next door — a widow with two sons, both in their early 20s. They were quick to claim us as family. My father became bhaiya, or brother, to the sons, and my young mother their cherished bhabhi, or sister-in-law. It is customary in India to refer to people that you meet with appellations denoting family relationships — auntie, uncle, sister, brother, grandma, grandpa, et al. There are those rare times when the name does indeed mean something more — when it makes you family. Their mother, “Auntie-ji,” as she became to us, was a fabulous cook, as was my mother. It was open kitchen all the time as they watched each other prepare regional delicacies. Many times Auntie-ji would labor all day then call out over the backyard wall for us, an invitation to come on over. Refusal was not advisable; she was a formidable lady who didn’t appreciate being crossed. All you could do was surrender to the food. Her sons (now my “uncles”) would frequently scale the backyard wall to show up in my mother’s kitchen, demanding to know what was for dinner. I quickly learned to climb the curry leaf tree at the opposite end of our backyard to get to the top of the wall. A careful walk across the top, till I reached their wall, to dangle over and jump into their garden.
Sarson da saag and makki di roti are what I make when I want to re-create the winter days of my childhood.
Sarson Da Saag recipe
Serves 4 to 6
- 1½ pounds oriental mustard greens
- 10 ounces baby spinach
- 1/3 cup coarsely chopped peeled ginger
- 1 cup coarsely chopped sweet red pepper
- 2 jalapeños or other hot peppers, deseeded and chopped (optional)
- 3 to 4 cups of water
- 1/3 cup finely ground corn flour
- 4 tablespoons canola oil or ghee, clarified butter
- 1/3 cup julienned fresh ginger
- ¼ cup garlic slices
- 2 to 4 dried red hot peppers (optional/to taste, or use a sprinkle of chili flakes)
- Clean, trim and wash the mustard greens in plenty of running water. Wash and drain the spinach. Coarsely chop the mustard greens. If the mustard stems are quite thick, chop those finer.
- Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a deep pan. Add the chopped mustard greens, baby spinach, chopped ginger, sweet red pepper and hot peppers. Stir and simmer over a low heat, covered, for about an hour or till tender. Stir occasionally while cooking, adding a little more water if required.
- When cooked, remove from heat. Drain the greens, reserving the liquid and placing it back into the pan used for cooking. Coarsely purée the greens in a food processor. Add salt to taste.
- Whisk the corn flour into the cooking liquid till mixed. Add back the puréed greens. Stir well and allow to cook covered, on a low heat, for about 30-45 minutes till cooked. You’ll need to stir the mixture every 15 minutes or so to prevent the purée from scorching on the bottom of the pan.
- When cooked, adjust the salt to taste. Remove to a serving dish and keep warm. Heat the oil or butter in a small saucepan. When hot, turn the heat to low, add the dried hot peppers, stir, then add the ginger juliennes. Stir gently and let cook for a minute or two. Then add the garlic slices and cook till the mixture is sizzling and just starting to brown. Be careful not to burn the garlic.
- Pour the spiced oil or butter mixture over the cooked greens and cut in gently to distribute the spices into the purée. Serve hot, with a flatbread of your choice.
- Handmade thick corn tortillas make a very acceptable substitute for the traditional makke di roti accompaniment. Provide additional butter or ghee at the table, to be used as needed.
Notes: 1) Every family has a favorite way to prepare this mess of mustard greens. This is just how I made it tonight, from sense memory, writing down the ingredients as I went. 2) The red pepper and spinach help to mellow out the pungency of the mustard. Traditionally, a green called “bathua” or lambs’ quarters is used with the mustard. 3) Bob’s Red Mill makes fine ground corn flour, which works well. It is otherwise known as makki atta, and is readily available in Indian grocery stores. Do not use corn starch. You may use fine-ground cornmeal.