How I discovered palak & saag weren't the same & why eating them during lockdown gave me perspective
Updated: Jan 10
As the title suggests, I discovered that palak and saag weren't the same thing? I was baffled! Initially this didn't affect me as I've had a very known disliking for both. Then lockdown hit and as a family, my mom decided we needed to go on an immunity boosting food kick!
Disclaimer: contains many disclaimers throughout, which probably won't be used correctly :( - Also I'm totally not a writer and this is deffo not the space to critique the writing. I just want to share recipes and food stories with anyone who wants to read them. xx
But first, a backstory!
Disclaimer: this is pretty long and waffly so scroll down for actual reflections on palak/saag and gaining perspective. - Also a step by step on how to make my mom's palak recipe with video examples attached!
Am I Julie?
In 2012 whilst on an annual family holiday to India, I found myself accidentally engrossed in the 2009 film 'Julie & Julia'. I say accidental bcs I literally picked this out from the inflight entertainment choices thinking it would help me sleep, adding just the right amount of background noise (disclaimer: it didn't, obvs).
Anyway, between this period of 9 years from then and rn as I'm writing this in 2021, I have:
- Learnt how to cook for myself, which is edible enough to feed others too (big win)
- Annoyed several people into sharing recipes and techniques with me, all of who include my family members and Rahul (my best friend) and more significantly, my mom.
- Convinced and unconvinced Rahul throughout secondary school, sixth-form, throughout our BA and now into our Master's that we should've started a food blog together (this collab could still happen?)
- Put myself off actually starting something because of the thought that nobody would actually read it.
Basically, I’m saying this whole saga came about bcs of a film I watched 9 years ago. I need to be honest here, I legit did not step inside my kitchen to cook anything until 2016, when I went through this phase of making these weird over-masala'ed prawns in a pan with couscous. This lasted a month, after which I realised I prefer rice and my masala mix was actually rank!
The film is based on Julie Powell’s semi-autobiographical book of the same title, 'Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously,' (2005). If you haven’t heard of either, let me give you a quick summary:
It essentially follows Julie, approaching the age of 30, bored of her day job in some call centre type office. She lives above a pizza place in Queens and has a passion for cooking. Powell decides to take on a project to cook all 524 recipes from Chef Julia Childs’ 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' in 365 days and documenting this entire journey on an online food blog. #meta
Not to be all melodramatic and that, but thinking about it, I share many parallels with Powell’s lifestyle. Living above a Domino’s, with an utmost admiration for my mom’s cooking (I’d like to think the way Julie had for Julia’s but more) and equally wanting to perfect the taste and skills she has in the kitchen - Although our motives are entirely different. Unlike Powell, this effort to cook and learn isn’t to prove anything to myself or others, but more-so a personally recited and documented archive of these recipes, which feel so ingrained in my upbringing. Also I actually enjoy my ‘day job’ of artist-come-food enthusiast (such a long winded way to say I like to eat but go off??) Omg, could there be a better time for me to start this? Am I the millennial, browner and arty version of Powell?
Saag// Palak & Other concerns
If you ever asked my dad what his favourite food to eat is, he would take no time in responding ‘sarson ka saag’, I know this because I have asked him this very question so many times over so many years, and his answer has never changed! I love the confidence and self-assurance that comes with picking your favourite anything, especially food! How do people do that? This non-decisiveness and complete trust in your judgement, declaring one thing as your favourite, in a world full of choices! I am terrible at it. I don’t have favourites in anything, I like too many things for different reasons, how boring. But I am constantly amazed by those that can be so assertive!
But back to the Saag // Sason Ka Saag. I’ve never liked saag I’ve gone as far as to tell family members, mainly my mom, to stop making saag. Saag and Palak to me were like liquified grass; muddy and a shade of green that felt too unappetising to ever possibly enjoy. Also palak, which my mom pointed out to me, with the most disappointed expression ever, is definitely not saag or like saag. Palak is just spinach, noted. - But for this text I am treating them as equivalents of one another (no hate pls!)
Disclaimer: for added context the next bit is a very short and dramatic summary of my first few months in lockdown.
During lockdown #1 whilst the first response for many was to begin stockpiling bags of pasta, toilet paper and hand gel, all my mom could think about was if there would still be fresh chillies, onions, garlic and ginger available to make tadka. The eventual announcement of a nationwide lockdown in the UK on the 23rd of March meant my parents, both nurses, suddenly became part of the people who occupied one of the most important roles in this pandemic scenario, 'the keyworkers', this was both weird and scary!
Things changed drastically for them further when figures began to release about how Black, Asian and minority ethnic people were more vulnerable to Covid-19, with the virus disproportionately affecting doctors and nurses of colour more than their white peers.
A month later and next thing ya know we were all in self isolation, as my mom had developed symptoms. After feeling too unwell to cook anything one night, my mom made khichdi. I sat there and thought to myself, are we going to have khichdi everyday now? - Don't get me wrong, I love khichdi, I have khichdi a lot; it's the right amount of comfort, spice and homeliness on a plate, but no. (pls read the rest of this text with the utmost unseriousness). This left me with an irrational existential fear suddenly: what if this lockdown and recovery time lasts longer than expected? Who will be cooking? - Did I leave it too late to begin cooking lessons with my mom? Have I faffed around my art practice that much without actually trying to attain any of her cooking skills? With my own final year deadlines looming, I decided this was more important, and lowkey also bcs I wanted to avoid them, the next day I was in the kitchen!
I literally had not cooked anything seriously since those prawns and couscous in 2016. With this newly self appointed role as the cook of the house, how did I begin? And more importantly how do I make something we can all eat?? I turned to a resource I spend hours on: Youtube! Scrolling through about 10 diff recipes of Chole, I decided on one by Sonia Barton, this required the least amount of time to prepare and also the only one with ingredients I already had in my kitchen. With the recipe written down, me still in my pyjamas, and having gotten my mom to help me with softening the chickpeas as prep (ignore that part) I decided to film the entire process. I laughed at my own ridiculousness typing this ngl. But this acc happened and 2.5 hours later I was done!
This was a significant achievement for me, for many reasons but mainly because I made my first ever meal! I felt a little teary at this first attempt and I had this new found energy of wanting to do more!
Jokingly, the next day I edited together the clips I filmed, added voiceover on iMovie and sent this 25min video out to various family on WhatsApp:
The WhatsApp began to fuel a very spontaneous and irrational idea within me: should this become my thing? Disclaimer: IT DID!
Why couldn't my practice during this time of uncertainty and collective fear adapt? Becoming something that is performative, recollective, archival; finally putting those things I speak of within my works about desperately wanting to learn and attain the skills of my mother in the kitchen to practice. Was this finally happening? (tissues at the ready for the next sentence) All of this whilst also serving a bigger motive of making people happy? I cringe, but I was kind of an overnight sensation with my family WhatsApp community. Does it get more communal than this? - Yes, I'll touch on that later...
So there I was trying to give my mom a break from all her duties in the kitchen, to inviting her back in and saying teach me everything and let me make it with you this time. She said yes on one condition that I have to observe each recipe not just the ones I thought I wanted to learn, I accepted! From April all the way to July (when she eventually could to return back to work) we spoke, made, ate and served the most incredible food and experimented with these recipes in the most special ways for fun! Nearly everything was filmed or written by me on my phone, ngl sometimes I would just watch and listen rather than document, that was equally special too.
Below are a few screenshots from my camera roll during that time:
Let's get to the saag/ palak motive tho. My mom was adamant that learning a vegetarian menu was important, she believes veg are the foundations to any cuisine and need to be mastered before getting to the non-veg, ngl I completely agreed! For her this included sabjis such as aloo, bhindi, green beans and dhal to name a few, all calm so far until it was the dreaded saag/ palak day. I agreed to stand, watch and film but let her know in advance that I am not interested trying to replicate this one in the future. She told me to shut up and watch.
I observed as my mom navigated her way through this process of preparing the palak. She handled these bright green leaves delicately, from the way she washed them and eventually adding them into the pressure cooker, there was some weird respect there, it made me laugh, I wondered why she was doing this so slowly. Everything was so meticulously timed too, second nature and ingrained. As the wilted leaves blitzed away in the blender, she began to put together the most basic of tadkas: onions, garlic, ginger, chillies, red chilli powder and salt. She said if you're eating palak, you want to taste palak, not an overload of masalas: simplicity is key here. As the onions in the tadka began to brown and the smell of ginger and garlic began to hurt my eyes, she said it was time to add the spinach in. I was mesmerised here, as this green mixture went in, it was glossy, emerald, earthy in the most familiar way; she stirred this slowly into the tadka. It began to change from its smoothness into a thicker form; as she stirred in two large spoonfuls of ghee from a tin pot, she smiled and declared this as her favourite part. It was innocent, childish and a proud moment, she knew this was the magical bit. I don't wanna go all Asma Khan on you rn but the smell filling the air as she stirred ghee into the palak, quite literally unlocked some next level feeling of being back home.
There's something incredibly special about the intimacy of sharing recipes, especially when the dish in question is actually so simple to replicate, but having thought this through, I don't think it actually was. I think what made this so special for me was the excitement my mom had/ always has when making it. And my dad's when eating it. I'd never understood my parents' love for palak/ saag until that day as I stood over and witnessed it being made. It felt with each step of the process she was replicating something learnt and rehearsed time and time again, I wanted that too. I wonder when I will reach that level? - That effort and memory attached to the making I feel is what makes it taste a certain way; better and comforting like an earthy hug. I feel I became more Punjabi that day, it felt nice. Since that day I now look forward to saag/ palak days, sometimes even on its own with a spoon, I'm a changed woman! I haven't yet tried making it myself, I'm unsure if I'm ready but I'm sure it's the next step naturally - maybe I'll even document it here when I do?
This first step, according to my mom is very essential, she says to wash the spinach leaves (palak) in water carefully and repeat this process 4-5 times - rinsing/ emptying and refilling the water each time.
Then begin transferring the washed leaves into a large pressure cooker - you can also use a large/ deep pot if you don't have a pressure cooker.
Add water into the pressure cook with the palak, enough to create steam (depending on your amount of palak). - My mom added half a cup to this amount.
Close the pressure cook lid and wait for two whistles.
The palak should have now wilted and steamed this way in the pressure cooker or pot...
Take the softened leaves out and transfer the contents into a blender. (Our blender had green chutney in it that we made earlier, this added extra flavour why not?)
Blend the palak until it becomes a smooth paste-like consistency, a small part of water can be added if necessary. (You can also use the water from the pressure cooking process)
Whilst your palak is blending away, begin the tadka!
Into a pan with hot oil, add in two chopped onions.
Add in chopped garlic (I'm unsure how many, my mom says go with what feels right?)
Add in chopped ginger (I just wanna say pls be safer than my mom when chopping/ dicing your ingredients, don't try this method at home unless u know how)
Add green chillies into the tadka, again as many as you feel necessary, we added 4-5.
Allow the tadka to completely soften and brown, mixing occasionally, if your onions aren't browning it's not done yet!
Add salt and red chilli powder
Add in the blended palak mixture into the tadka and begin to combine everything together - do this slowly.
Mixing the tadka and palak mixture together - this part gives me mixing oil paints using a palette knife vibes!
She then adds in two large tablespoons of pure ghee into the mix and stirs it in gently, allowing the ghee to melt fully into the palak and release all its warmness.
Leave to cook out further and it's done! Enjoy with fresh rotis!