India’s love affair with winter greens

Ever wondered why mixed greens — and by that we mean all leafy greens and root vegetables — are such a staple for winters in India? Here’s the skinny. 
Umbadiyu is a barbecued version of the surti undhiyu
Umbadiyu is a barbecued version of the Surti Undhiyu

For Purvi Vyas, an Ahmedabad-based environmentalist and Food Politics Professor, winters are often a ruse to indulge in her all-favourite Umbadiyu, a barbecued version of the Surti Undhiyu. Born into a farming family, on weekends Vyas is often seen at her farm preparing this winter feast, traditional style. Unlike Undhiyu where mixed vegetables, especially beans, are chopped and cooked in a clay pot turned upside down, this Malta version, says the farmer, “is made of three basic vegetables: papdi, sweet potato and potatoes. Of course, one can add more vegetables to it depending on what is available. This is then cooked in a pot that is first infused with a fragrant, wild-growing weed. The vegetables are put inside the pot and covered with leaves. This cooks for the next one hour or less depending on the number of vegetables, and how many of them are root and stem.”

“At our farm,” she continues, “this dish takes about 45 minutes, but the beauty is how the vegetables are layered, which begins with the sturdier to the delicate ones, which are often wrapped in muslin cloth and thrown in so they don’t become mushy.”

Once ready, the vegetables are taken out, peeled, mashed, seasoned, and then served with a kind of rassa or simple farsan garnish with the meal. One of the foundation dishes of our culinary history, the brilliance of the Umbadiyu isn’t just in its earthy, smoky flavours but also the cooking technique that uses the moisture from the leaves and the vegetables to cook the dish. It was the sheer ingenuity of the dish and taste that made the Parsis adopt it and turn it into their very own Umbariyu, a mixed vegetable dish that has meat in it.

Fascinatingly, the creation of Umbadiyu or Umbariyu dates to a time when foraging was still a part of agrarian civilisation. The dish was often made by the chief’s wife as part of the community meal that the village would have in the evening during winters. That perhaps explains the constitution of the winter speciality that took its base ingredients from vegetables that not only grew within their farms but were easy to forage — and yet had the leeway to add newer ingredients. This dungar-style Undhiyu that uses green chutney as its seasoning was such a hit that it became a staple around community tables, even those that were hosted on the erstwhile ports for seafarers. 

Undhiyu with muthia is a popular combination
Undhiyu with muthia is a popular combination

When it comes to winter greens, however, the Umbadiyu is but one of the many fascinating dishes that are made across India that celebrate not just the local, seasonal produce but also the ancient wisdom of “food that heals”. Take the instance of the Maharashtrian Sōḷā Bhajyanchi Bhaji. A winter staple from Vidarbha, especially in the villages, according to culinary archivist Executive Chef Kedar Bobde of Hyatt Regency Chandigarh, “this made-in-large-quantity dish is made of 16 different winter vegetables including cluster beans, long beans, pumpkin, chavali, drumstick, red pumpkin, sweet potato, yellow cucumber and fenugreek leaves among others. A one-pot dish, it is a regular feature through the winter months and is loved for its minimal use of oil and a very basic tempering. In fact, the dish’s popularity stems from the fact that each vegetable used is seasonal and hence tender and easy to cook with no requirement for any kind of flavouring.” 

Agrees chefpreneur Neha Deepak Shah of Meraaki Kitchen, who calls these mixed greens dishes one of the finest “one-pot meal wonders”. Born into a vegetarian Gujarati family, Chef Shah’s was accustomed to the vegetarian aspect of Indian cuisine, but it was only during her research for one of her plant-based outlets that the MasterChef finalist discovered these winter specialities from across the country, including ones that use meat as well like the Bengali Muri Ghanto that is made with vegetables and fish head (and tail). “There is a common thread that binds most of these dishes together and that is the fact that almost all have an ancestry that dates to the early years of civilisation, and each is made with minimum spices and less-to-nil oil and water,” says Chef Shah.

Odisha's dwitiya ghanta is a must-have during mula ashtami. Image: alka jena
Odisha’s Dwitiya Ghanta is a must-have during Mula Ashtami. Image: Alka Jena

One such popular dish that has a celebratory status in Odisha is the Dwitiya Ghanta. Much like the Maharashtrian Sōḷā Bhajyanchi Bhaji, which is made especially during the ‘Gauri-Ganapati’ festival for the entire community, the Dwitiya Ghanta is a must-have during Mula Ashtami, and can comprise anywhere from seven to 13 ingredients and more. A gourmet version of the regular mixed greens like the Santula and Saag, which much like the iconic Punjabi Sarson ka Saag is made of at least three or more leafy greens, the Dwitiya Ghanta’s charm, says Odia food researcher Alka Jena, “is in its taste that comes from some intelligent pairing of ingredients that are known to pair well with each other. In this case, it is pumpkin, ash gourd, green papaya, pointed gourd, snake gourds, ridge gourds, drumsticks, plantain, brinjal, mature cucumber, tubers like elephant foot, sweet potatoes, leafy greens like pumpkin leaves, and amaranth stalk to name a few. Of course, one can add or delete ingredients as per availability, but this Ghanta tastes the best with the right combination as most of the flavour profile of this dish depends on the happy pairing of each ingredient with the other.”

Of course, she continues, “the tempering which is usually ginger, bay leaf and chunks of elephant apple to give that twang also contributes to making the dish a winter must-have.” 

This blend of wellness and taste is also the secret of what makes the Rajasthani Panchmel Ki Sabzi such a loved winter delicacy. The dish originated in Rajasthan in the areas bordering Gujarat. According to Executive Sous Chef Abhishek Gupta of The Leela Ambience Gurugram, “it is one of the few vegetarian dishes apart from the Ghutan that is an ode not only to the winter style of cooking in Rajasthan and the ingredients that could be grown in some parts of this desert state, but also to how the cuisine evolved in adopting new ingredients that arrived at its border and could be grown in the state. That aside, it is one of the dishes that is sought after for its taste and filling nature, much like the Walor Muthia nu Shaak that had inspired the Ghutan.” 

In the case of Karnataka, says Praveen Shetty, Culinary Director of Conrad Bengaluru, “a state blessed with amazing winter produce, especially the leafy greens, gourds and yams, the variety of winter mixed greens, just like in Kerala’s Avial, are many. One, therefore, often plays with the different ways of presenting the winter produce. A case in point is the Huli Soppu Saaru. Essentially, a tangy green curry, this dish traditionally is made of mixed greens — primarily spinach (palak), amaranthus (dantu) and harive, another kind of green that belongs to the Amaranthus family — but over the years has seen the addition of new ingredients. Served with ragi mudde, it makes for a very filling meal during winters when one constantly craves for food due to the energy spent in staying warm.” In fact, continues Chef Shetty, “aside from the tanginess that comes because of the tamarind, in every aspect Soppu Saru is much like the Pahadi Kafuli, which is a dish that is again made of mixed greens and is mildly tempered.”

Curiously, says Executive Chef Yogendra Pal of Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, “when you talk about winter greens, many places in the north including the hilly regions of Himachal and Kashmir share Punjab’s fascination for using a lot of greens, especially the local variety of spinach along with other leafy greens. In our community in Kasauli, the Sarson Ka Saag made with spinach and mustard greens with the former making upto 70 percent of the dish, is a staple. Served with roti or rice, it is the one dish that is capable of not just evoking that balmy feeling but also the necessary warmth that would make one walk out in a place that during peak winters looks like those towns in Wuthering Heights.”

Sarson ka saag is popular across north india
Sarson ka Saag is popular across North India

Mixed greens rule the winter plate in Manipur as well, a state known for its vegetarian fare, and has unique dishes like the Khangshoi — a stew made with all-seasonal fresh produce and flavoured with garlic and marol, a locally-grown form of ginger — and Paaknam, a steamed-in-banana leaf savoury cake prepared from a thick batter of besan, herbs, vegetables, and flavoured with chilli and the traditional ngari

This brings us to the question of why there are so many mixed greens dishes in winter, and why most of them are minimal in their tempering? One of the reasons, says Culinary Director Vikas Seth of HopsHaus, “is that they are in season, tender and hence packed with flavours that need no additional enhancement. The second reason stems from Ayurveda which considers the mix of delicate greens, beans and root vegetables as this antidote to not just fulfil our daily requirement of vitamins, antioxidants and minerals but serve as a source of fibre as well to keep the system in shape in spite of the high-calorie food one is inclined towards, especially halwa.”

One such dish that was created by Chef Seth to demonstrate the virtues of winter season vegetables is the Vegetable Alambre—a vegan take on the popular Mexican meat-based delicacy. 

Chef vikas seth's vegetable alambre is his vegan take on a popular mexican dish
Chef Vikas Seth’s Vegetable Alambre is his vegan take on a well-known meat dish from Mexico

Even nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin recommends mixed vegetable dishes that have root vegetables in their mix highly for winters as they are the ultimate “superfood to developing a healthy cholesterol.”

The reason dishes like Ghanto or Undhiyu were created using beans, yams and other root vegetables in a good quantity is because of the balance, says Bhassin, “that these dishes bring to our system. They keep us warm, producing thermal energy that requires us to eat food rich in fats like ghee, mawa, and rich halwas. These fats, to generate good quality cholesterol that would not only provide fodder to the brain but also produce effective cortisol, a hormone responsible for your overall health, need the glue, resin and gum that root vegetables come packed with, especially elephant foot yam, sweet potatoes and such. They not only help digest the saturated fat but also work the extra calories and fat to produce enough Vitamin D that is essential to keeping one happy.” 

Saag gosht is a winter speciality
Saag gosht is a winter speciality

It is also the reason that dishes like the Bengali Muri Ghanto and the Punjabi Saag Meat were created as they, she continues, “aid in turning the soluble fibre and starches into good fat that is responsible for keeping us full and our brains calm.”

As for the minimal approach to tempering, says Chef Seth, “it is just to give these green dishes that little push of taste and warmth that can aid in the effective absorption of the nutrients in the body.”

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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