A Slice of Heaven

The sight, the aroma, that creamy mouthfeel and the invincible after taste of a loving warm hug,  a few things that make Sarson Da Saag and Makki Di Roti the must-have winter feast.  

By Madhulika Dash; Picture credits: Zest, Comorin and Stock images

Two years ago, amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, when a popular portal asked Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Zest, to create a dish that embodies the concept of a "hug and a happy future", it took all of a second for the slow food advocate to come up with his ideal dish: it was Sarson Ka Saag and Makki Di Roti.  

Recreated with a Mexican flair – the other country we share our love of corn with – Chef Seth's version was in the form of a tamale with the velvety saag as the filling, served alongside safed makhan (white butter) and gur ka bura (powdered jaggery). Wrapped in corn ears, this Mexican take on the popular North Indian fare even visually effectively conveyed the hug the dish is most known for. 

The Winter Feast 

That, says the Amritsar born chef, "is the beauty of Sarson Ka Saag and Makki Di Roti. No matter which region you belong to or what your legacy cuisine is, this winter treat tends to pander to all palates and their whims. And to think of it, both the saag and the makki roti come not from the royal scullery but that of the farmers.  

A 1844 gazette waxed eloquent about how makki (corn), a rather late entry into the India agro-space, took precedence over pulses and wheat during winters, especially for the hard working commoners of erstwhile Punjab and the denizens of the Dogra empire. In fact, it was much preferred to even millets, an ancient grain that lost to corn popularity-wise, when it came to bread to pair with winter specials, meats as well.  

But what was about the pairing of sarson ka saag and makki di roti that made it such a wholesomely perfect meal for winters – a season when cravings and hunger thanks to the cold weather almost go hand in hand. A curiosity that takes a giant leap when one realises that this quintessential Punjabi winter special is in fact a marriage of the old with the new.  

Did you read that right?! Yes, you did.  

The Fusion of The Old And New  

Sarson Ka Saag or the concept of winter saag across India is nearly 6,000 years old. Sarson or mustard greens is one of the oldest cultivated crops that even in its wild version was part of our food habit along with its peer bathua or lamb's quarter, a leaf variety that is believed to be the ancestor of  spinach.

While maize or corn, despite its frequent appearance in many a temples especially those constructed by the Hoysala dynasty of Karnataka around the 12th century, by all accounts arrived in India around the 17th century with the Portuguese who got it from America that got it from Spain who got hooked to corn after colonising Mexico – the birthplace of corn, of course.  

So by the time corn came to India and was experimented by the British (Alexander Gibson) who found it worth the money and figured the Indian corn varietal of bhutta with its sweet kernels and ability to wither dry weather and bad soil, Sarson Ka Saag, a low-calorie, nutritional dense winter wellness antidote, was already celebrating its centennial or more with similar saag varieties not just in Punjab and the Dogra kingdom of Jammu but also the rest of India.  

The plot of most of the saag dishes found across India along with the different styles of sarson ka saag found in the North followed the same storyline: the bitter variety, in this case the mustard greens was paired with bathua varieties like bathua known for its shotha har (anti inflammatory) and vedana shamak (pain relieving) properties and other seasonal greens that would add body and contrasting taste.  

In the case of sarson ka saag the latter was spinach. "Tri-gether" these greens and create a dish that is dense with all the minerals, vitamins and iron along with the goodness of antioxidants.  

Saag, The Old Gold  

In fact, the key reason for the presence of saag dishes across the Indian culinary ledger, says Chef Nimish Bhatia, Founder Nimisserie Bespoke, "and of sarson ka saag in most regions of the north is the sheer ability of the dish to not just provide the necessary nutrients required but the power to heal.  

Sarson Ka Saag, especially the composition, according to traditional science, is known to heal joints aches and pains, detox the system and even build the gut and liver health. Thus, resulting in an overall boost to the immunity. And aiding it in this regard is not just the makkai roti, which is a good source of digestible carb, fibre and selenium that helps in cell repair, but also the white makhan and jaggery. Each of these accompaniments, while creating the perfect bite and mouthfeel, aids in digestion and keeps the energy levels high in the body.

Of course, says Chef Seth, "much of how the saag goodness is assimilated in the system comes from not just the right combination of sarson, bathua and palak, but also how it is cooked. While traditionally a 60:20:20 ratio has turned out to be the best hack to get that velvety, delicious saag that one is most familiar with, the real deal is the slow poaching of the saag in water.  

Unlike palak where the nutrients often escape into the water, in this combination where sarson is the hero ingredient, slow cooking actually helps recalibrate the nutrients into easy to digest format while giving a nice, aromatic, gooey green mash.

Tempered to Taste  

The other aspect which helps crank up the saag goodness is the tempering. While there are different ways that sarson ka saag is flavoured across India – in Punjab, the tadka includes garlic, ginger, onion and dry red chilli, it may differ from region to region. Those closer to Himachal Pradesh would use more garlic to give the contrasting taste and amazing aroma, with an occasional inclusion of buttermilk, those near Uttar Pradesh would add a hint of tanginess with curd and often finish it with fried onions to crank up the taste. There are some recipes that also call for the use of tomatoes.  

The version that Chef Bhatia and Chef Seth mostly find convenient to work with is the one they grew up eating. For Chef Seth, while that is a step by step recreation of his grandmother's favourite style of slow poaching the saag first in mustard oil and then using ghee for the tempering which is often garlic and dried red chilli with fried onions and makhan added as garnish to elevate the taste, mountain loving Chef Bhatia finds the addition of buttermilk or matta as a fantastic way to up the experience of a rustic dish.  

The Pro Hack

Curiously, the know-how of the different ways of tempering their beloved saag has helped the seasoned chefs to ably recreate the dish with amazing proximity to the traditional version, irrespective of the region they are in. And that flexibility to a large extent also depends on the availability of the ingredients as per the regions in different parts of the country and bhutta.  

The only difference is that, adds Chef Seth, "depending on the freshness of the produce one does have to  rework the ratio for the taste factor."  

Fortunately, for corn that became a major cash crop post the Green Revolution taking India's production marginally ahead of Mexico, that isn't the issue. In fact, the rise of corn and its different usage has only worked to make us more familiar with maize in all its formats, especially the roti.  

That along with migration has helped take this winter, balmy food to every region of the country, and even work the ways to make it more conducive to the climate and the diner's palate there.  

"What, however", says Chef Seth, "we insist on having, is a thick ground of the maize flour. This allows the retention of a good quantity of water, turning the rotis softer and the experience more enjoyable."

Plated Perfection

This brings us to the two pertinent questions: Why were these two paired? And why does the classic combination still feel relevant to us even today?  

While the answer to the former could be attributed to the taste of corn, and the fact that it grew in excess making it accessible to people, especially farmers; the latter has as much to do with the taste DNA that as per recent research changes every few decades to factors like mouthfeel and the effects that this rustic peasant meal manages to achieve.  

Just think about it; the instant feeling of satiation that comes with the first bite means that the brain has got its food, the body's thermal dynamics is working and the food because of the taste is going to digest faster. And that translates to a happy you despite the cold, sunless day outside.  

The next is the sheer feeling of being full. The brilliance of makki ki roti is that it makes you chew thus working the digestive system much before it does in case of atta roti. Add to that a low Glycemic Index and the chances are that you wouldn't feel hungry or tired for the next few hours as there would be a regular energy capsule supply to the body, which needs more energy to keep the thermal balance going. 

And finally is the nutrient blanket that one gets in the form of this delicious meal where saag is low in calorie just makes the deal sweeter. Of course, it is also the association of good times that come with Sarson da Saag and Makki Roti – which incidentally is the piece de resistance for almost all winter festivals including Lohri.