Few dishes spell Punjab ka khana in bold like delicious Sarson Ka Saag and Makai Di Roti – the finest example of local, sustainable food practices of the yore, this culinary masterpiece is as comforting in its taste as it is nourishing in its making and brilliant in its composition, says seasoned chefs.
By Madhulika Dash; Pictures courtesy Comorin and istock images
Three years ago, when Chef Dhiraj Dargan (Executive Chef, Comorin) began working on the menu of Comorin, the one dish that the Delhi born and bred culinary mind could immediately incorporate was Sarson Ka Saag and Makki Di Roti. A quintessential Punjabi fare, it was the perfect rustic meal that stood for both functionality, nourishment and our sustainable food practices. For Dhiraj however, the choice was determined by one more factor: the comfort.
“There is something absolutely hug like when it comes to this simple farmer’s fare that makes you want to have it as soon the temperature outside takes a dip. Made with fresh sarson saag, palak and bathua saag, it was a meal made for the Avengers in us and negated any need of refreshment till dinner time, and this included water breaks too,” recalls the head chef who learnt his recipe of the saag from his grandmother who used whole coriander in the tempering to give the dish its memorable taste and addiction.
Concurs Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Garam Masala), who considers the quintessential Punjabi dish a masterpiece, not just in its “composition of taste and texture but also in nourishment.” Think of it, continues Chef Seth, “the saag in itself is made of three rich source of Vitamin A, K, E and D, which is the sarson sa saag along with palak and bathua (and in some cases fresh meethi too). Now that in itself makes this dish, a superfood bowl and the perfect food antidote to replenish the body with the necessary vitamins, minerals and soluble fibre. Then comes the flavourant, which in traditional format has hing followed by a tadka of whole jeera and dry chilli and in some places ginger-garlic paste. This tempering done in ghee not only cranks up the taste of the saag but also adds the necessary nutrients that take care of the digestive track, the gut and prime up the respiratory system against any vagaries of weather change.” One reason why Sarson Ka Saag and Makki Di Roti is especially had during Lohri too – a day that not only marks longer days ahead but also signals towards a constant change in the weather that leaves us susceptible to all kinds of ambient stress and ailments.
That’s when, adds nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “the saag and its combination became our immune system’s most efficient armoury. While the saag helps us with our vitamin intake that keeps our skin and digestive track in proper shape; jaggery keeps the mind calm, and stress level low, while the white butter and makkai ki roti works to keep us replenished by converting into energy quickly.”
Adds Bhassin, the bread made of maize aside the Vitamins is a rich source of selenium and beta- carotene that ensures the thyroid gland is primed up to fight any kind of issues that the body faces during the period. What gives this ancient meal its ace of course is the cumulative action of all these ingredients, which is a release an interesting cocktail of Serotonin and Endorphins, which not only makes one feel relax and calm, but also gooey warm happy – much like a brownie.”
This is the reason why this quintessential meal, say the experts, “not only appeals to our palate but also attains an emotional connect with warmness and winters. Result, whenever we feel low because of the shorter days or stress, sarson ka saag and makki ki roti is what we crave – and feel satiated too.” The wonderment is that even in its modern avatar, when lots of other flavourants including onion and tomatoes are added, the dish still retains much of the traditional wellness value it was created with back in time. Such was the adoration for this farmer’s meal that it has even found mention in the Acharanga Sutra, a 2,300-year-old book on Jainism and its food practice.
According to the tome, Sarson Ka Saag, which originated in the early period of Harappa Civilisation, is a complete meal that provides one with the complete range of nutrients required for the mind, body and soul to function well. Charak Samhita accords it a place of a superfood for the sheer number of nutrients that this seemingly minimalistic dish can pack in. Such was the wellness prowess of this delicious that emperors often chose it to be a part of their war cooking retinue and was given to soldiers to recover faster from war fatigue. The inherent wellness quotient along with its humble origin – the Jain monks discovered the dish while on their journey to advocate the learnings of Mahavira – were the two reasons when Sarson Ka Saag was chosen to be a part of the Langar meal by Guru Nanak Sahib. It was a great equaliser, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels), “since everyone in Punjab would have it, given that little resources in terms of ingredients this dish demanded in the recipe. And yet, the dish had this uncanny versatility that allowed it to assemble every new flavorant and produce with ease.”
Be it cumin and coriander introduced by Alexander’s army, hing from the Silk Route, chillies and tomatoes by the Portuguese, or even onions as and when it gained acceptability into our food system, says Chef Harangad Singh (Chefpreneur, Parat), whose own recipe of Sarson Ka Saag has been inspired by her grandmother who hailed from Maharastra and includes onion and tomatoes in its cooking, while the tempering is with adrak, lehsun, makki ka atta. Fascinatingly, that isn’t the only change in his recipe, to give that saag a fuller taste, Chef Singh, “also adds the leaves of radish to the mix with makki ka atta giving the saag, the density required to have that nice, velvety mouth feel.”
Adds Chef Dewan, “What makes the Sarson Ka Saag recipe an absolute charmer is the fact that it yields to a numbers of combination when it comes to green leafy vegetable provided the basic two leafy vegetables – that of spinach and mustard greens – are taken care of. In fact, in the entire composition of the saag, these are the two varieties that lend themselves to creating that delicious mouthfeel – the rest of the ingredients are only for enhancing the base flavour. And since it is spinach, one of the most delicate of winter produce – the cooking for a good dish needs to be minimal.”
The rest of the taste making, adds Chef Seth and Chef Dhiraj, “comes from the Ghotna using a traditional wooden, wheel-head spatula, which brings in the rest of the flavour while keeping all the nutrients intact.”