If you look at a bowl of Sarson ka Saag, it makes no apologies for its attitude – a confident blob of emerald green, earthy taste.
The post-meal feeling? Surprisingly, rib sticking.
So, what is Sarson ka Saag?
Sarson ka Saag is a dish from the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan. It is made predominantly from the leaves of the mustard plant. It is always accompanied, amid regal authority, with its culinary cousin: the Chapatti (toasted wholemeal bread). Sarson ka Saag also boasts quite a surprising nuance! This purely vegetarian main dish is best enjoyed with thick, unapologetic slices of raw, red onions. Like I said, Sarson ka Saag is a dish just brimming with attitude.
The history of Sarson ka Saag
As autumn approaches in the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan, the landscape begins to take on a different look and feel. Fields and valleys begin to change with the dainty emergence of the Sarson ke Phool, the yellow, mustard flowers which then grow into the mustard plant. Sarson ka Saag, the dish, comes from the green leaves and stems of these mustard plants.
Oral history states that at dawn, before the farmers leave their homes to tend to their fields, a ritualistic act unfolds. A large vessel is placed on a very low fire. Into this vessel, finely chopped vegetables such as mustard leaves from the day’s pickings, spinach leaves, fenugreek, radish leaves and a few chunks of turnips are added. Now the vegetables in this vessel will bubble away, breaking down bit by bit – but never burning – as the vegetables’ natural waters “rise up” and moisturise this dish evenly. By sunset the famers have now returned from the fields and only the finishing touches are needed for the Sarson ka Saag. As one person cooks the Chapattis, the other adds maize flour to the Sarson ka Saag to thicken it. It is stirred constantly until it turns blob-like and pudgy. A pinch of jaggery is known to be added at this point, but no wise lady in all of Punjab will acknowledge this fact…openly. Then, the hot Sarson ka Saag is served with the freshly made Chapattis with a side of roaring raw onions.
Memories of Sarson ka Saag
Personally, my connection to Sarson ka Saag is against quite an endearing backdrop. My grandfather came to Malaya via the Punjab region as a young lad. Years later, he fell madly in love with my grandmother, a Peranakan Catholic from Melaka. In the 1920’s, the rules of marrying a Catholic lady was, as one can imagine, very non-negotiable. My grandfather agreed wholeheartedly to the guidelines, but had just one request. Would his Peranakan Catholic wife learn to cook his favourite Punjabi dishes and serve them at home once in a while?
His wife lovingly obliged and henceforth, Sarson ka Saag, Masala Channa (spicy chickpeas) and Kheer (a sweet, milky based rice pudding) became my Friday night fare.
When I make Sarson ka Saag at home, the final step is what makes me cook this dish over and over again. Once the vegetables have been boiled down and blended (to replace the traditional structure of sunrise-to-sunset-cooking), I add cubes of ghee (clarified butter) right onto the surface of the dish and just watch the ghee melt, almost seductively, into the vegetables. This is Sarson ka Saag’s Magical Moment. The dish immediately takes on a glistening, emerald green look and the appeal of Sarson ka Saag starts to become apparent. A buttery rich aroma floods your senses and you start believing that cooked down vegetables and ghee are very good things in life.
Presently, Sarson ka Saag is a dish that’s often (and unfairly) overlooked at Punjabi eateries by most Malaysians. Some Punjabi homes do not even serve this at a party as it’s regarded as a ‘common’ main.
What’s not to love about Sarson ka Saag? Well, nothing actually.
There are loads of recipes on Google that you can look up – but better yet make a Mummyji very happy by asking her to teach you. Next time you are at a Punjabi restaurant, look for it and order it. I have always felt Malaysian eaters are an adventurous bunch so I think it’s time to bring Sarson ka Saag to the forefront – raw onions and all!