This erstwhile Punjab delicacy not only is a delicious showcase of the cultural influences in the region, especially that of the Pashtun tribes; but a layer-on-layer timeline into the flavour play that once dominated this Spice Route trading post.
By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Parat & stock images
“I am looking for spinach of all forms,” says North frontier food specialist Chef Ravi Tokas (Parat) as we begin our almost a mile long walk into one of the farms in Delhi NCR. Its seven in the morning, and Chef Tokas is on one of his ritualistic visits to pick greens, especially saag. This will be followed by a quick visit to the butcher to check on the mutton as well as the chicken for the day’s special – Saag Gosht.
Of all the dishes that I have explored from erstwhile Punjab, says the seasoned culinary hand, “saag gosht remains one of my personal favourites for two reasons: One, of course is the fact that it uses the traditional style of flavouring, which is with fresh seasonal produce instead of spices; and two, is the cleverness of the use of spices. Unlike other meat dishes, Saag Gosht gets much of its palate play from the jugalbandi of spinach and meat and relies very little on the spices that play the role of character artist in the making of the dish.”
Which, continues Chef Tokas as he soaks the separated leaves for a quick wash, “is fascinating given that Saag Gosht originated in Multan, a place that for a large part of its existing life remained an epicentre of trade, power and politics. History tells us that much of the culture in Multan and areas close by (Khyber) was developed by the Saraiki, one of the oldest ethnic groups of Pakistan, who took a lot of their culinary influences from Persia and the Arabs traveling on the Spice Route. Result, much of the food is subtle with a wide use of produce in their meat – Saraiki cooks are famous for using all kinds of produce in their meat dishes, including Sohanjna (moringa) – and are extremely clever about using spices. In fact, it is their unique way of using spices, which is done both whole, ground and in paste, that gives the Saraiki cuisine, its unique characteristic and identity.”
Concurs former chef turned hotelier, Vincent Marques (Resort Manager, Jehan Numa Retreat), who has worked closely with the Bhopal nobility to understand a thing or two about how sublime the Saraiki food culture is. Not many know, says Chef Marques, “is that the Begums of Bhopal have their original roots from the Pasthun community that settled in and around erstwhile Moradabad, and thus have a culinary legacy that is heavily influenced by not just Persia but an offshoot of the Saraiki food culture, especially in their use of spices, the way it is used, and the tradition of cooking meat with vegetables.”
One excellent example of this is the Saag Gosht prepared here, which is made using chopped spinach instead of the paste used elsewhere in the country. Another unique aspect of the variation here, continues the Bhopal Begum’s cuisine expert, “is how they treat the whole spices. Like in case of Saag Gosht, both the green and black cardamom in their whole spice mix that also uses bay leaf, clove, and pepper. But it is what they do once these spices get fried and aromatic that lends the Saag Gosht here its unique taste. Instead of letting the whole spices simmer with the masala and spinach, the spices once fried are removed, deshelled (especially the green and black cardamom pods), pounded and then added to the ginger-garlic-onion mix before the meat is added. This little step along with the use of chopped spinach gives the mutton its interesting palate play and aroma.”
Interestingly, it is also the trick that gives Chef Tokas’ version its rustic-ness, of course the other is the use of mixed greens to give it that interesting palate feel. The play with the greens is a technique, says the head chef of Parat, “that I learnt during my journey into South Punjab, where the dish is still made in the same manner as it is in Multan, which is a region famous for using the buds of mustard blooms and white flowers of kachnar to give the meat dishes its different taste and texture.”
In fact, according to historical accounts, the art of Saag Gosht travelled from Multan to modern day Punjab during the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, thanks to Diwan Sawan Mal Chopra. As the Khatri Diwan of Lahore and Multan, and perhaps the only governor who is said to have a keen interest in the people of the region, he had the privy to some of the finest Saraiki cooks of the region, and their delicacy. His favourite: the Saag Gosht. One, because it was a dish with a captivating palate appeal; and two, because of the familiar taste of the saag and kukad. So fond was he of this simple yet perennial delicacy that it became a standard in the kitchens of Diwan Manzil, and even travelled to the royal court of Ranjit Singh and eventually to the streets of modern-day Punjab.
Since then, there have been as many versions of the dish as they are of palak in India, including one of beef, chicken and even prawns. But what remains unmissable of this dish is its subtle use of spices to create a dish that is as rustic as a farmer’s meal, but is befittingly rich for a royal feast.