Our journey into sub-continental cuisines has often taken us back to the times when it was being classified into celebratory menus, ethnic specialties and seasonal delights.
One such hearty rustica is palak paneer or saag paneer, an old favourite of the Punjab, more so of Northern India and adopted by Pakistan.
The five rivers that flow through Punjab, namely Chenab, Sutlej, Jhelum, Ravi and Beas make the land fertile and rich, giving birth to earthy vegetables, favoured by the urban population of not only Punjab, but the entire subcontinent.
Additionally, dairy forms an essential part of everyday consumption, may it be a dollop of makkan on makkai ke roti, a glass of mithi or namkeen lassi, a tarka of desi ghee, or paneer playing host to saag and palak.
Since India is vastly vegetarian, it has developed appetising techniques of substituting meat, and paneer is one such perfect replacement.
It has great spongy texture, layered depth and a mellow flavour which plays the perfect partner to most vegetables, lentils and grain flours.
The quintessentially Punjabi paneer is a cheese used vastly in all flavours of desi cuisine, sweet, savoury and tangy, and its union with spinach and/or mustard greens is a match made in heaven.
Saag is consumed in the region of Punjab in the cooler months. Traditionally, saag paneer evolved into palak paneer to suit the palate of the people who lived beyond the borders of Punjab and preferred a more urbane menu (since spinach was introduced to the subcontinent much later than the locally grown mustard green).
Needless to say, saag paneer and palak paneer are interchangeable and are made using different kinds of leafy greens, much like sarsoon ka saag.
The Food and Travel Magazine says the following about spinach;
The first we heard of spinach in Britain was when Richard the Second’s master cooks penned a simple recipe for it in England’s earliest cookery book. Wherever it originated from, everybody seemed to fall for its robust mineral flavours and versatility. In India and Persia its pungent taste was welcomed as the perfect base for the intensely spiced cuisine.
Nothing is more quintessentially Punjabi than saag; it’s a hearty food, abundant in flavour and nutrients, much like the land and the people it belongs to.
Saag and palak (since its arrival in the subcontinent) was the rural people’s food, and the robust homemade paneer saag or palak paneer union fit the hardworking lifestyle of the village people, who laboriously working the agricultural lands of the fertile province.
They almost always propagated the consumption of desi ghee (clarified butter), desi makhan (butter), lassi (yogurt drink), desi paneer (cottage cheese) and chaach (buttermilk), and this practice has since carried to urban Punjab as well. A heavy cuisine it may be but its organic goodness is nutritious like no other.
When it was time for me to make palak paneer I turned to my dear friend Anjali from across the border for her recipe. Here it is, from my kitchen to yours.
3 ½ bunches of spinach (blanched in a little water and pureed in a food processor)
3 to 4 tbsp. oil
1¼ tsp. cumin
2 finely sliced medium-sized onions
3 to 4 green chilllies, slit in length
1 tsp. fresh ginger and garlic
Red chillie powder to taste
1 tsp. coriander powder
275 grams. paneer (cut in small cubes and fried)
2 tomatoes (finely chopped)
Salt to taste
1 tsp. garam masala powder
1 tbsp. malai (cream), or to taste
Sautee the onions until soft (for a few minutes), adding cumin, green chillie, ginger garlic.
Continue stirring while adding red chllie and coriander powder.
Next, add chopped tomatoes, stir on high heat until softened, adding pureed spinach and cook for 10-15 minutes.
Add in the fried paneer, garam masala and malai, cook for a few minutes until done. Serve with chapatti or rice.