A commonly known dish with Punjabi roots, sarson saag (mustard greens) paired with makki di roti (corn flatbread) and makhan (whipped butter) has become an icon for comfort food especially as a celebration of the end of the winter solstice and the incoming harvest (Lohri). This dish found its way into our home in the ways of labor being exchanged. Laborers in these sarson fields and other crops came from many south asian regions from Bihar to Bangladesh, making harvests possible at the price of being far away from home.
As is, this dish is suitable for vegetarians but the way it was adapted by us, we make a vegan version that is great for summer nights too. The depth and layers in its flavor vary but with the purpose of combining multiple cooking techniques and the use of earthy ingredients to create an ode to the beauty of harvest. The unique journey each pot of saag is tempered to imbibe flavor sometimes feels like a metaphor in the ways that it has been adapted by the intersections of laborers that harvested the main ingredients of the saag and roti.
I talk about home but constant migration (voluntary or not) makes it harder to assign it a place. I believe in the spirit of home, stemming from the world my daadi created for me in the brief moments the politics of borders and casteism allowed us to meet. Broad shoulders overlooking the fields, wide feet flattened by days of walking in the mud, looking at her face made golden by the sun..I smiled. A day is a lot and a lot happens in a day, but days with my daadi didn’t weigh too heavy. Who could say I wasn’t her granddaughter? I grew up with my maternal side of petite women, size 6 feet, and fair skin tinged with turmeric. Was handed fair and lovely like it was a rite of passage. I learned I could hold my own in my difference only because of her. That and my daadi would be quick to boast how proud she was to have a pothi (granddaughter) who stood sturdy like a tree kissed by the sun. Representation is so powerful and each word we use is building up more than someone’s self confidence, we’re building a culture.
I belonged. A closeness to the earth and the magic that lies right beneath her surface. She had a habit of sowing the seeds from the vegetables or fruits we were eating and each time the seedlings peered through the dirt, I felt the seamless energies of the creator. She showed me the small changes that accumulated to the ripening of the mangoes I loved so much. How to harvest the mustard greens at the root in one quick pull – what I thought were weeds were actually dinner. We’d return with tokris of vegetables and gather in the main veranda. My cousins and I were invited to the process as we integrated into different roles of cleaning the greens, peeling tomatoes, husking the corn, and for those older – even chopping. The spices however were always reserved and done by elders. My grandma’s decades of experience was a concert of fluid motions as she quickly ground the whole spices the way a musician knows each note of their instrument, proportions weren’t about measurements but the soul of the flavors. We whimsically became sous chefs making meals shared in love not knowing how rare these moments would be in the future – replaced by drive thrus to sustain 12+ hour work days in foreign lands starting to forget each other’s faces. Even at eighty, she never asked for anyone’s help to get up or move about, inspiring an energy to thrive. The love of the spirit of this land still tethered to a site of pain and struggle as imperial waves pieced it away that we couldn’t have afforded.
The question of where we come from can be haunting. Finding myself in other places of clay beds just to feel grounded in the energy, trying to reconnect when our homes were displaced along with our lineages across arbitrary borders that became the result of resistance – the Partition. Like with many countries that were colonized, a key aspect of colonization dealt with categorization, of representation and characterization which we mention a lot on a global level in current media and dialogue. These categories helped a lot of tensions climax, how you say “divide and conquer”. In many ways, there was an assimilation to your immediate region and the definitions, labels, and categories they were happy to ascribe and delineate. Picking up these fragments of post partition and seeing global politics unfold, I wonder what is it that makes us think of each other as a community? Is it because I look like you, because we can speak the same language, the fragrances in our kitchen smell familiar; what is our context?
Is it in the west indies where we were taken
Is it nepal’s villages where my daadi came
Is it the mining colonies of bihar that my maternal side knew
Is it sitamari where we settled
But a lot of how we see ourselves and identity politics stem from these observations without carrying the knowledge of our ancestors to give it a context outside of what settler gazes ascribed to them. A community focused on aesthetic, our maximalist culture absorbed Eurocentric standards and ever since, became a disservice to those who don’t fit the archetype of being fair skinned, skinny, tall, and features that would allow us to be white-passing.
Seeing my daadi reject these standards, gave me a direction to start unlearning and unpacking but I know I’ll still struggle with it. The questions of labor, of this earth, of our mother. I try to rely on the stories before our colonizers, hoping to sieve what I can. I think about Sita who was born from this earth and returned to it in the middle of unrest over definitions that were arbitrary, a red earth accepting us regardless of the atrocities of the people. Sitamari, where Sita returned to the earth. To where we found home anew. Sitamari, where my daadi returned to the earth and joined the stars.
My mind goes back to the nights we spent on the rooftop. Gazing at the stars and avoiding mosquitos under nets I would pretend were royal drapes, we made our lives grand in each others company. You were so proud of us but memories can be bittersweet as our lives pan over the hard days you’d seen and sacrifices that are inevitably asked for the mountains you moved to raise us, to fight to exist to continue telling our stories. And it may be a quiet night that I find myself stirring the saag, but in the fragrances that rise I find myself connecting back to spirit of the past and a connection I want to consolidate for the future, come what may to where we call home now. In loving memory, daadi, a matriarch who raised 6 sons alone and gave us a legacy – the seas could have separated us but our spirits will never fare too far.
This recipe yields enough for 2
- Let’s prep. Rinse your greens thoroughly, dirt always has a way of getting left behind and we don’t want that gritty texture! Chop up the tomatoes, ginger, radish, and garlic. Set aside your spices to easily toss them in later. I also like to prepare the dough at this point so I can let it cool and form the rotis while I wait around.
- Boil greens, radish, tomatoes, ginger, chilies, and garlic until cooked through on medium low. Add the set aside spices and salt to taste. You’re going to be smelling a really nice veggie broth 15-20 minutes in, adding the dry spices adds a nice grounded earthy base.
Around the time your greens become an olive green brown is a good time to take out to blend. You can also test the radish which should be pretty mushy now. Blend in a chopper or pulse until desired consistency. You can strain out extra liquid if you like it to be drier. I prefer my saag to have a bit of a bite so I will pulse 1-2 times in a chopper
- Time to add a tadka. I like using mustard oil to fortify the greens with a bit of bite. Have it warm up on a pan on medium high. Drop the ajwain and mustard seeds to toast, I will usually put a lid on it so that they don’t pop all over you!
- Add onions and let caramelize with some salt. On to the final step for your saag! Drop in the pulsed greens and simmer on low. Most people will temper with makhan and fold it in if they want the traditional flavors.
Serve with makki di roti and sliced radish, chilies, and more makhan if you’d like!
- So y’all know this is an amateur cooking blog so eyeballing it is very much my mode of operation. I start with about 2 cups of corn flour with a pinch of salt and continue to add warm water until the flour is clumping. Then using a rolling method I press my palm and fold the dough a few times until it starts to form a dough.
- Although some people will prefer to roll it, corn flour does not have gluten so it won’t hold as well and I prefer to hand press them because I enjoy the thicker texture. If you do decide to roll it, using two sheets of wax paper or even a ziploc you divide will get the job done!
- I tend to roll all of them and then start cooking them, but your assembly line is yours to decide! Before you are ready to cook, heat up your griddle or nonstick pan on medium high. You can grease up the pan with your choice. Place the roti and let sit for a couple minutes until brown spots start to form and then flip and cook the other side as well. Continue this process with all the rotis, if you’re making the vegetarian version you might like topping it with makhan to melt into and make it tender.