I believe all our gastronomical experiences and the sensory emotions they evoke are a reflection of our childhood experiences, and my first memory of the endless fields of yellow flowers of sarson kay kaith (mustard fields), is of unadulterated childlike awe. We were driving from Karachi to Rawalpindi through Tarinda, a village in Punjab, when I saw an impressive black bull wearing a black crow on its head like a crown, standing in a field of gold.
I vividly remember exclaiming, “black gorilla and black crow standing inside yellow flowers,” I was three, life was full of possibilities and my first meal of sarson ka saag and makkai ki roti was just around the corner.
Nothing is more quintessentially Punjab than sarson ka saag and makkai ki roti, it’s an earthy hearty food abundant in flavour, nutrients and colour; much like the land and the people it belongs to. Picture fields of golden yellow flowers on the foothills of the magnificent Himalayas, the region sarson has been indigenous to for more than 5 millenniums. Sarson is a winter and spring fare and its seasonal abundance in Punjab, on both sides of the Wagah, makes it a Punjabi favourite for the rustics and the urbanites alike.
Sarson ka saag is a vegetarian delight made from the leaves of the mustard plant, the same plant that gives us the delicious condiment mustard. The desi (colloquial term for things, people and a way of life from the subcontinent) mustard green, grown in Pakistan and India is a smooth flat textured leaf, but another variety includes a crumpled frilly leaf, spunky in look but earthy in taste. Historically, sarson ka saag, was generally the rural people’s food in Punjab and the robust homemade butter-topped saag fit the hardworking lifestyle of the village people laboriously working the agricultural lands of the fertile province. They almost always justified and propagated the consumption of desi ghee (clarified butter), desi makhan (butter), lassi (yogurt drink), desi paneer (cottage cheese) and chaahch (buttermilk), and this practice has since carried to urban Punjab. A rich cuisine it may be, but its pure, farm fresh and organic composition makes it a winner in the world of engineered and preservative laden food.
The nutritious content of sarson ka saag and makkai ki roti is why mothers fed it to their children, “mothers know best, for generations they have been cooking this Punjabi favourite, and for good reason,” said Ramesh Chander, a Jalandhar-born and raised Punjabi, who now runs a very successful vegetarian restaurant chain in the US.
As I was chatting with him his lovely wife who I affectionately call auntie, she offered me a plate of freshly cooked sarson ka saag as Ramesh Uncle continued to say, “these leaves give you great strength and makkai ki roti is a great accompaniment; it is gluten free and has a unique sturdy texture when cooked. Roti (bread) made with the flour of freshly harvested corn was always available in the winters of Punjab, since corn is cultivated in Punjab, and our forefathers bought it home from the fields for the woman folk to grind in the chakki (grinder mill) to make corn flour.”
Traditionally, the real sarson ka saag is cooked sans masala, just a dash of salt and ginger, mixed in with the greens; mustard greens, green chilli, spinach, bathuaor mithi (pigweed and fenugreek). And the real cooks, our mothers and grandmothers, who follow the age-old family recipe without the modern touch to suit contemporary lifestyles, still cook it the same way. It was said to be slow-cooked and hand stirred in its own water until it reached the desired edible creaminess of freshly churned butter, and then laden with fried onions and topped with farm fresh butter and devoured for simple goodness.
People hailing from Uttar Pradesh shallow fry sarson and top it with tomatoes and yogurt to overwhelm its strong peppery and bitter taste, an entirely different style of cooking. Sarson has an almost pungent taste to it and is therefore cooked in the company of other greens, broccoli, radish, spinach, pigweed, fenugreek and at times turnip.
So, when it came time for me to make sarson ka saag and makkai ki roti, I turned to none other than Anjum Khala. She has been making saag for our clan for more than 50 years, and proudly and rightly claims that the lesser the ingredients the better it is. Though Khala currently lives in Faisalabad, the recipe is her mother-in-law’s who lived in Rupnagar, pre-partition India, and in turn had learnt this real Punjabi saag from her own mother-in-law. I can therefore rightfully claim that it is a family recipe going back to the later part of the 19th century. I could not find pigweed, which is an ingredient in my Khala’s original recipe, but Ramesh Uncle suggested a secret ingredient to enhance the flavour of the saag.
The original rural recipe is slow-cooked to creamy delight though I predictably took an urban shortcut, and the outcome was a deliciously rich and rustic delight, and the proof was in the pudding as my 13-year-old happily came for a second helping. Here it is, from my kitchen to yours.
Sarson ka saag (serves 8 to 10)
4 lbs mustard greens (chopped with stem)
2 lbs spinach
2 lbs pigweed (if available)
½ cup water
1 tsp brown sugar or 1tsp jaggery (secret ingredient)
5 to 7 serrano peppers
Salt to taste
1 inch piece of ginger
2 tbsp corn flour dissolved in ¼ cup water
2 large sliced onions and 1 tsp chopped garlic (fried in ¼ cup oil for garnish)
A dollop of butter per serving, if desired
Pour ½ cup water and mustard greens in a large pot and cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, add spinach, salt, sugar, peppers, ginger and pigweed (if available) and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes. Put in blender to roughly blend, add dissolved corn flour and cook for a few minutes. Garnish and serve.
Makkai ki roti (makes 12 to 14)
4 cups corn flour
2 ½ to 3 cups warm water
4 tbsp chopped cilantro (optional)
2 finely chopped serrano peppers (optional)
Salt, if desired
Oil, as needed
Add warm water to flour, knead dough adding cilantro and pepper. Make round portions and flatten to roti on parchment paper. Heat pan with a teaspoon of oil and transfer roti with parchment paper, remove paper and flip roti for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until golden, serve hot with a dollop of butter.
-Photos by Fawad Ahmed