Why It Works
- Braising the tough mustard greens makes them tender.
- Adding spinach ameliorates the sharpness of the mustard greens.
- A simple tadka adds layers of flavor and aroma to the final dish.
- A final pat of salted butter on top adds richness and salt.
Sarson ka saag is the ultimate comfort food, and it recalls for me the bitterly cold winter months of northern India. Growing up in a Punjabi family, this was a dish that was often made for special occasions, like weddings that took place during the winter, but it was also made on weekends, too.
"Saag" for me has always meant sarson ka saag, a dish traditionally made with mustard leaves and a mix of a few other greens, like spinach, fresh fenugreek leaves, and bathua (also known as white goosefoot). And sarson ka saag was always served with a dollop of butter on top, accompanied by makki ki roti, a flatbread made with maize flour, and a little piece of jaggery on the side. That's it; a complete meal, a complete celebratory meal, because saarson ka saag needs very little else.
Until recently, I had some difficulty finding mustard leaves in the UK where I live, although you can purchase them online. I found some when traveling to another town for work, and I was reminded of how distinctly delicious mustard leaves are: slightly bitter, creamy when cooked, with a sharp, mustardy bite. When preparing them, you don't want to add too much to get in the way of their flavor.
For this dish, I braise the mustard greens with just ghee and water until they're tender and then add a little spinach to balance out some of their sharpness. I remove the greens from the pot, wipe it out, then make a simple and lovely tadka consisting of garlic, ginger, and a few chiles to make the whole thing sing. I add the greens back to the pot and mix them with the tadka, then use a potato masher to break up the greens further. Finally, I serve them with a pat of salted butter on top for richness.
Once you've tried this recipe, you'll undertsand how different it is from the "saag" you might find at your local Indian restaurant. The flavor is entirely different, and the delicious greens have more substance and, consequently texture. In fact, the sturdy leaves are so fibrous it would be very difficult to turn them into a purée of any kind.
If you can serve this with a makki ki roti, that's great, but you can also serve it with a stack of humble chapatis to really experience the flavor of mustard greens at their fullest.
- For the greens:
- 1 tablespoon ghee
- 4 bunches (400g) of sarson (mustard leaves), washed, spun, and finely chopped
- 1 bunch (100g) spinach leaves, washed, spun, and finely chopped
- For the tadka:
- 2 tablespoons ghee
- 1 tablespoon neutral-flavored oil, such as sunflower
- 2 dried red chiles
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1/2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
- 1 hot green chile, minced
- 1 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; if using table salt, use half as much by volume or same weight
- 1/2 teaspoon chile powder
- 2 tablespoons salted butter, for serving
For the greens: In a large straight-sided skillet or Dutch oven, heat the ghee over medium-high heat. Add the mustard greens along with 1/2 cup (120ml) water, stir to combine, and bring water to a boil, about 5 minutes. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until leaves have softened, about 8 minutes. Add the spinach, stir to combine, cover, and cook until spinach is completely softened, about 5 minutes. Transfer cooked greens to medium mixing bowl and wipe out the pan or pot with a clean kitchen towel or a paper towel.
For the tadka (and to finish): Add ghee and oil to the pan or pot and heat over medium heat. Add the dried red chiles and cook until they begin to sizzle, about 1 minute. Add the ginger, garlic, and fresh chiles, stir, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the cooked greens back to the pan or pot along with salt, chile powder, and a 1/2 cup of water, and stir to combine. Increase heat to high and bring liquid to a boil, about 2 minutes. Turn off heat and, using a potato masher, firmly mash greens. Stir well, then transfer to a serving dish. Top with salted butter and serve immediately.
Make-Ahead and Storage
In a sealed container, this dish will keep in the refrigerator for 4-5 days.