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  • Writer's pictureVernika Awal

How the humble sarso ka saag is today a canvas for India’s best chefs

Once rooted in Punjab’s agrarian culture, sarso ka saag is no longer just housed in the northwest frontier’s hinterlands — it is one of India’s absolute favourites.

Sarso ka saag made by Vernika Awal

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.

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.

But, it wasn’t just a stereotypical favourite. Historically, saag was the food of Punjab’s hinterlands. The full-bodied, home-churned butter (makkhan), on top of the saag and the roti, fit the physical labour-intensive lifestyle, as the agrarian lands so most tend to fields. Even if it sounds rich and heavy, the purity, coupled with freshness and the 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 the 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 becomes a coarse mix, and is then tempered with desi ghee, finely chopped onion, ginger, garlic and tomato puree,” says Chef Ritu Uday Kugaji, a culinary expert.

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 also loaded with plant compounds, and is a powerhouse of nutrients, loaded with soluble and insoluble fibre, vitamins and minerals like iron, folic acid, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium.

Given its agrarian roots, the saag was, for the longest time, a meal relished largely in the homes and dhabas of rural Punjab. Today, it is there for all to see how 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 this come along? As 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 the late Chef Floyd Cardoz’s Kulcha Club — the famous pizza-style kulchas he served at the 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 the tandoor, and is finished with a charred corn salad, white butter and pickled mooli — which is reminiscent to the mooli ka aachar that is eaten up-North during this time of the year, and corn curd which adds the perfect creaminess and acidity to the preparation. It is dressed with hydroponically-grown mustard leaves, which add a zingy and piquant punch to every bite.”

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