Amita Paul

Amita Paul

The Smells, the Colours, the Textures, the Histories
The Narrative, the Links to the Past and the Present 
Of my Sarhon (notice, Sarhon, not Sarson) da (notice, da not ka) Saag 
Or Maize- floured Mustard Greens Curry Stew, Mess, or Paste from Punjab 
(notice me trying to define it for an international readership 
(notice me trying to give and idea of it to those who may never have heard of it - and failing but failing spectacularly!)
Today, I want to tell you about it.

In my village in the Malwa region of Punjab 
Sarhon da Saag always was and still is 
Cooked from late November to mid February 
The Winter Months in our part of the world 
When the wheat is growing alongside the mustard 
And imparting a sweeter flavour by some tangible osmosis 
To the usually acerbic (literally, sour and bitter) mustard leaves 
My grandmother always asked us to pluck the mustard leaves and stalks growing closest to the wheat fields 
And to pick the earliest, youngest, most tender mustard leaves 
With the greenest, sweetest, juiciest stems, called gandalaan 
(Gandalaan da Saag is the sweetest, you must know - never discard the stems!) 
And that too from the native mustard called Desi Sarhon 
Never the hybrid or foreign Raili Sarhon 
The Yellow Mustard, or Sarson, mind you, with its milder more sweet flavour 
Not the Black Mustard, or Rai with its more bitter flavour, used for curries, chutneys and pickles 
Or the Red Mustard called Banarsi Rai, whose tiny seeds are reserved normally only for pickling needs. 

Those precautions taken, then we cannot forget to pick some Bathua Saag, 
Which is Chenopopodium Album or White Goosefoot 
(Also called Lamb’s Quarters or Melde in English) 
And which grows naturally as a weed in the Desi or Native Wheat Crop fields 
So we are doing the weeding of the wheat fields while also picking essential herbs or greens for our Mustard Greens Stew 
Or Sarhon da Saag.

This is the season for spinach and fenugreek to grow in our vegetable plots 
As also for the fattest and shiniest of green chilies 
Onion and Garlic, while the monsoon Ginger has been harvested and put out to dry 
In the mild and friendly winter sunshine 
So we must gather these essentials too, for our Very Important Dish - let’s call it VID!

Now on a wood fire or supplemented with cow dung cakes
In the clay stove or chulha in the cooking area 
Of an open backyard up will go
A sturdy red baked mud pot half filled with water
With the whole family busy cleaning and washing and chopping the greens 
The proportions laid out by the main cook
Who could be mother or grandmother or aunt or some other elder 
One part of mustard greens to half part of spinach
Quarter part of white goosefoot and one tenth part of fenugreek
Quarter part of white onion one tenth parts of garlic, ginger and green chilies
Thickly chopped and added in as and when prepared 
And a little salt added for seasoning, that’s all
Some might add one tenth parts of shredded cauliflower 
Or finely chopped cabbage and even a small shredded turnip
But these are by the way and dependent on availability 
And matters of individual taste or family tradition.

Well, you let this mixture bubble and then simmer away for a good hour or more 
Covering it with a lid after a boil or two
Taking care not to lose even a drop of the water wherein all the flavours are 
And wait till the leaves grow tender 
And the seasonings too have turned into a mush, 
Then take it off the fire for the next step of the recipe. 
Much gossip goes on in between, besides genuine exchange of news
Among the cooks and helpers
Adding mysteriously to the flavour of the final dish. 

Meanwhile someone is pounding a mixture of fresh chillies and ginger with a purpose
While the main cook measures out the maize flour for the Saag paste 
As also for the Makki di Roti or Maize Bread with which the Saag is to be eaten 
And the previous Desi Ghee or Home- made Clarified butter for the cooking and tempering 
For which last step more onions and garlic too must be chopped
And some fresh cream or top of the milk or Malai too must be kept ready.

Now to separate the boiled leaves and seasonings from the green and flavoursome water of the stew 
In which they have been cooking in the mud pot 
You must press with a ghotna or a wooden masher and squeeze to get all the water out 
Then put the squishy solids in a Kundi or stone grinding pot
And begin to grind them with the ghotna or a sota
Both wooden mashing or grinding sticks 
And as you mash and grind your greens 
You must add small quantities of maize flour and the stew soup or green water 
Turn by turn, and mix them with the boiled leaf greens, herbs and condiments 
Till it all forms a thin watery paste 
Taking care not to let the maize flour form even a single tiny lump
And adding tiny spoonfuls of the coarsely ground ginger- chilli mixture at every turn 
So that the paste does not turn bland.

In the end, you just add the last of the water to the paste 
As you put it back in the mud pot and give it all a final stir 
Then let the thin gruelly paste simmer away for a good quarter of an hour
So that the maize flower and the raw chilli garlic mixture gets thoroughly cooked
You must stir it of course, so that lumps don’t form
But beware of the sputtering bubbles that form and burst out of the dish
For they can scald you badly
Don’t forget to add a generous ladleful of homemade ghee to the boiling mixture 
To perform the wonderful alchemy that ghee always does 
In Indian cooking.

As the VID simmers and sputters on the wood fire in the clay oven
We must now get together the handful of chopped onions and garlic 
and the leftover mixture of ginger and chillies roughly pounded together 
And more ghee for the final tempering 
And add these to a kadhaai or large Indian wok
And sauté the seasonings before adding the cooked greens to them 
Checking for taste and adding salt or red chilli powder if needed
And finally, just before taking the VID off the fire
Add the homemade cream or top-of- the - milk 
And give it all a good stir.
Our Sarhon the Saag is finally ready, but we must cover it and keep it aside.

For now is the time to make the Makki di Roti or Maize Tortilla or Indian Cornbread to eat the Saag with 
Starting with a loose dough made in warm water 
And rolling out thick tortillas to be cooked on a thick iron griddle 
And to keep ready the white unsalted homemade butter 
Or in its absence more ghee 
To butter the hot bread with.

Some helpers must now make ready the other essential accompaniments of the VID
Curd and buttermilk, and sliced carrots and radish
Whole red or white onions mildly smashed with a ghotna or wooden pounding stick
And peeled but not sliced, ready to be pulled apart by the diners 
Each of whom would get one full thus smashed onion on his plate
Alongwith one or two buttered Maize Tortillas piled on top with the Saag 
Again topped with a scoop of white butter or fresh cream 
And the carrot and radish salad 
And some freshly made Amla or Indian Gooseberry pickle
With gooseberries fried in mustard oil with salt, turmeric powder and coriander powder
And if asked for, some mango pickle as well.
A walnut- sized lump of jaggery would also be placed in the thali or brass serving plate of each diner 
The curd in a small bowl for each diner is left unseasoned 
But the buttermilk is usually salted spiced up further with black salt, coarsely ground black pepper, as well as freshly roasted and ground cumminseed powder.
These are great accomplishments with which to wash down the Saag- Roti. 

The sweet jaggery can be eaten at any point during the meal but is usually left till last 
To be eaten with the final morsel of Makki di Roti 
Or Maizeflour Tortilla 
And some fresh unsalted butter or cream or warm fluid ghee 
- That’s enough dessert after such a full meal. 

Now tell me, is that not a meal fit for a king or a queen ?

Far away from home, if homesick for this VID, one has to make do
For restaurants serve only a travesty of it 
And many serve the Saag with wheat chapatis 
Or with Missi Roti, which is made of a mixture
Of gram flour and wheat flour, seasoned with salt and caraway seeds. 
In England in the nineteen seventies one could find tins of Sohna or Verka Mustard Saag 
Exported by the Government of Punjab and sold by Indian stores 
And in the United States and Canada in the nineteen- nineties
I found it still available as such, but with the added benefit 
Of Mexican Corn, Maize or Wheat Tortillas.
I always tried to make fresh tempering of onion, garlic, ginger and green chillies to go with it
And to add the curd, buttermilk, carrot, radish 
Onion, green chilly and pickle accompaniments for good measure 
And always shed a metaphoric tear or two induced by nostalgia 
For my village, my grandmother, and the clay oven in our open backyard.

My guests to such a VID meal were always delighted 
For though they knew it was not authentic 
They appreciated the thought and effort behind it 
And while the non sub continental ones had nothing to compare it with
The guests from India and Pakistan, especially those from Punjab
Were just so sentimental about this signature meal from rural Punjab 
That their emotions made up for the lack of authenticity in the meal served to them.

Such is the magic of our age old culinary treat
Sarhon da Saag te Makki di Roti


(A Self Renga) 

The sudden burst 
Of chilli on your tongue 
Satirical Senryu

The headiness 
Of Rice Wine Sake 
Japanese Haiku 

Biting and chewing 
The sweet bread of a Sonnet 
So satisfying 

The Rose Petal Kheer 
Of a delicate Ghazal

The bold Biryani 
Of an Irregular Ode
A full meal 

The rustic potage 
Of an Ecologue 
Pastoral Idyll 

The Greek Retsina
Of Epic Heroic Poetry
Most influential

The Honeyed Wine
Of Horace’s Lyrics 
Latin Poetry

The Korean Kimchi
Of a thought-provoking Sijo
Very inspiring 

The Malaysian Satay
Of a rounded Pantoum
Tasty and nourishing 

The Burmese Khao Suey
Of a graded Than Bauk
With echoing rhymes 

The French Chocolate
Of a charming Rondeau
A real treat 

The Italian Ravioli
Of a sensuous Sestina 
Worth the effort 

The Scottish Haggis
Of a Highland Ballad 
Or Border Song 

The Irish Stew 
Of the Ae Freislighe form 
Brief or long 

The English Breakfast
Of an Aubade with benefits 
Very tempting 

After Dinner Mints 
Of a Sweet Serenade 
Fragrant Dreams 

The Funeral Meats
Or Wake of an Elegy
So appropriate.


  1. Thank you , Setu Bilingual Magazine and Editorial Team for giving this platform to my work.

  2. Thank you, Team Setu !

  3. It's a wonderful article, I was immediately transported from a chaotic Karachi to the rural Punjab, full of its lush green wheat fields beside beds of yellow mustard flowers. What a scene, and what food for imagination, tingling our taste buds! I really loved the additional information regarding gossiping ladies between your recipe for the perfect saag and the perfect makke ki roti. You reminded me of the Doordarshan tv serial Sanjha Chulha. As for the recipe, I wonder how delectable the saag must be with this original recipe if even the restaurant ones taste good enough. The best saag I have eaten in Pakistan was in a restaurant in Multan. And after the article, the poems came like a sweet dessert. A perfect ode to a flavoursome dish.


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