The Saag Saga

An integral part of meals across India, here’s a look at some of the interesting greens and how their making has turned them into superfood in a bowl.

Come summer, and one of the things that occupy Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti (Corporate Chef, Sonar Tori) in his spare time is the search for saag or leafy greens. On any given day, you would find the Bengali cuisine expert rummaging around the local market or in his locality finding different versions of greens to cook.

In the past five years, his zeal to find lesser-known greens, a part of traditional meals, has turned him into an expert of sorts on the seasonal varieties of greens that grow across India, particularly in the eastern belt. It has also given him a green repertoire that today extends much beyond the common favourites and includes the likes of gima and kolami saag to beng and chakunda as well.

Purnanava saag dish
Saag has been a part of meals across the country for centuries. One of the main reasons for this is the abundance in which it is found in across seasons.

Fascinatingly, most of his recent discoveries such as the bitter gima saag, also called the Indian Chickweed, and the helencha (watercress) are summer varieties that bloom during this time of year until about the end of May—a period marked by sudden weather changes and heat waves. And that is when, says Chef Sumanta, “these greens come into play as they are not just the richest source of naturally occurring, soluble sodium, but also vitamins C, A, K and a whole lot of minerals including iron and zinc, and fibre. Together, these nutrients not only help detox the system and strengthen cardiac function, but also keeps immunity in fighting shape”.

In fact, continues the culinary expert, “cooking-wise, these summer leafy greens score high on their sturdiness and often work as a canvas that can be fortified further to enhance the effectiveness on our body”. A case in point is neem begun or neem bhajam which is made across the states of Bengal and Odisha. The acutely bitter dish is cooked with tender leaves of neem and eggplant, both diced and then sautéed with mustard oil, raw garlic and green chilli. This combination not only helps make the neem leaves edible, but also brings in the goodness of garlic and eggplant, which in eastern culinary culture is revered for its antioxidants and fibre.

In fact, given that eggplant is known to be low on GI and sodium, it makes this dish perfect for those with diabetes and lifestyle ailments as well. Another fascinating preparation is of gima saag. A bitter variety that grows around this time, it’s loved for the kind of taste variation that it can lend to a meal, both as is or as part of a saag dish, which says Chef Sumanta, “is often made by cooking two to three leafy greens of the season together. However, when gima saag is made on its own, it is served as a fritter with equal amounts of rice and gram flour going into the batter for taste as well as to balance the bitterness of the saag that grandmothers used to consider best for not just good eyesight but also skin”.

Concurs Chef Pawan Bisht (Corporate Chef, One8Commune), whose interest in the community of saag was piqued as he began discovering local varieties including the Punarnava. One of the mainstays of ayurvedic treatments, this wildly growing weed, says Chef Bisht, “is a big part of the meals here, starting from the end of summer until winter, and is revered as therapy for everything from insomnia and arthritis to colic issues and even asthma. It has been an integral part of meals for centuries. But what is interesting to note is how saag keeps evolving with change of seasons, not just in its combinations that is largely decided based on which variety is easy to forage in abundance, but also in preparations.”

Take the case of moringa. While the leafy green is available through the year, says Assamese culinary expert Geeta Dutta (Founder, A Foodies’ Diary), “summers happen to be one of the best seasons to indulge in them, primarily because this is the time when the leaves regrow and are bursting to their tip with nutrients. With a slight tendency to go bitter once chopped, moringa is great on its own as a simple, mildly spiced dish made with diced potatoes and eggplant. It makes for an even more interesting treat when paired with laal shaak (amaranth), thrown on top of a vegetable mix such as Odia Santula and Ghanta or simply tossed with fiddlehead ferns and pork. Quick to cook, these tiny health boosters add a tinge of bitter aftertaste to the dish that is an absolute delight to have.”

“In fact, in many ways, moringa, is the summer version of poi saag, a variety that is revered in eastern and northeast India because of its versatility when it comes to not just lending interesting flavours but also being part of wholesome meals such as poi chingudi saag and Odia saag tarkari, which has it as part of a melange of summer vegetables.”

Yet another leafy green worth exploring is the pumpkin leaf. Rich in fibre, calcium and iron, the brilliant thing about these vines is that much like the fiddlehead ferns in the northeast, tender pumpkin leaves are used along with a stalk, which are a summer alternate to drumsticks. In Odia cuisine especially, says Odia food expert Minati Parhi, “the leaf, thanks to its solidity, is used not just as a flavourant in vegetables dishes that need more cooking time than a simple saag, but also as a wrapping. In fact, it is one of the few leaves other than that of Colocasia, which becomes edible once it’s cooked. The Odia patrapoda – that translates to leaf roasted food—remains one of the most popular ways of eating the pumpkin leaf which yields brilliantly when it comes to flavouring meat and fish dishes as well.”

The idea behind so many saag dishes in India, says consultant nutritionist Niti Desai, “stems from three reasons: first, most greens, even the not-so-delicate ones, not only cook faster but are great to taste when paired well. In fact, most of our saag preparations follow a similar pattern of mixing two or more varieties, and tempering ensures that they are digested easily. The second reason is their nutritive value. Most greens come with a good quantity of vitamins, minerals, fibre and even a dose of calcium, which are in a soluble state and can be absorbed by the body easily. Of course, the bonus is that some saag preparations are fortified further with complementary nutrients along with natural potassium and sodium that is essential for the body during summers, when digestion is sluggish, and we lose minerals faster thanks to the heat.”

In fact, continues Desai, “the role of saag, especially in the preparations we have across the country where the fibre is kept intact by roughly chopping it, is much like the opening batsman in cricket who sets the ball rolling. In our case, it is ensuring the functioning of blood in the body”.

It was precisely for this reason that Rasayana too, says Chef Sumanta, considers “saag as one of the key tathya (element) of a balanced thali, especially during summers. After all, it is the only dish that has the potential to work with a slow agni and balance the pitta thereby paring down the mood swings that happen during summers, when the body is losing much of its essential minerals. In fact, one of the bonuses of having saag, especially preparations with a bitter element such as neem, gima or moringa in it, is that they help rejuvenate the tongue and allow you to experience the subtle flavours of summers”.

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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