Monday, October 26, 2015

Cooking Punjabi Soul Food

(click images for close-ups)

Last night I made one of my favorite Indian dishes, the widely beloved Punjabi soul food dish of sarson ka saag and makki di roti. The former is a spicy, garlicky dish of pureed greens (similar to the various palak dishes you've had), and the latter is roti made with corn meal, which sounds strange until you realize how much corn Indians actually eat over there (if not over here).

Good luck getting Indians to agree on which green "saag" actually is; credible authorities say mustard greens, spinach, or chopped broccoli. But I went to Patel Brothers (the essential Indian grocery chain in the NY tristate region), and they've hung their "saag" sign over a bin of broccoli rabe. So I went with that.

This was the first time I've cooked Indian food in 25 years (long story), and I learned stuff. Notice that this is all work in progress; I've only made this once, so I'll surely refine everything in future attempts.

Have you ever embarked on a new recipe and realized, midway through, that far more work was involved than you'd expected? This was the opposite. I'd briefly read through a number of sarson ka saag recipes (this one, this one, this one, and this one) and makki di roti ones (this one and this one), and they all seemed rather vague. Now I understand why. These dishes are almost crazily error tolerant. These are the Toyota Camrys of recipes.

And even though I was mostly working from this recipe, itself so stripped down that the author felt obliged to defend herself ("You can add onion, tomatoes and different other spices if you like it. Try this one and i am sure you’ll forget all the other seasonings"), it could be stripped down further still. A lot of pains I took in cooking this stuff were unnecessary. So I've distilled it to its essentials. Just read these straight through; you can truly learn/grasp/internalize both recipes from a light read:

Sarson Ka Saag

Clean and stem a bunch or two each of mustard greens, broccoli rabe, spinach, and, if you can find them, "bathua leaves" (aka amaranth, lamb's quarters, pigweed). Boil a couple cups of water in a dutch oven, and toss in the leaves. Cook for a while (doesn't matter how long) at medium heat, then use an immersion blender on them.

Reduce heat to low, and add plenty of finely-chopped garlic and three or four finely-sliced small green chilis, 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida (available at any Indian market), plenty of salt, and a couple tablespoons of corn flour (for thickening). Add the corn flour gradually or else it'll lump up. Cook at low heat. Check for thickness, and add more corn flour if it's very runny.

In a pan, fry crushed garlic and a whole lot of freshly-grated ginger in as much ghee as you can stomach. Add to the pot and stir (you can also dole out the cooked ginger/garlic atop individual portions at serving time). Done!

Makki di Roti

Mix fine corn flour (Mexican masa mix is easiest to find) and corn meal (proportion doesn't matter) to total 3 cups. Throw in a bowl with some salt, a handful of finely chopped cilantro leaves, a few finely sliced small green chilis, and 1/2 tsp ajwain/carom seeds (again, available at Indian markets, and these are essential). Mix thoroughly. Add very hot water, mixing lightly with a spoon or spatula, until it's wet enough to hand-knead. Let cool until you can handle without burning hands, then knead until texture is even.

Grease the insides of a sealable bag. Form a small dough ball, place in bag, and flatten - with a roller if the dough is tough, or with your hand if it's moist. Remove very carefully*, and cook over medium heat in a cast iron skillet lightly (or not so lightly) greased with ghee. Be careful to cook both sides thoroughly. Clean pan between batches, or you'll wind up with burnt bits on your roti (per my bottom photo).

That's the whole thing. There are very intricate recipes out there, but this was the easiest cooking imaginable, and turned out great and authentic!

* - Removing the roti from the greased bag is the tricky part. One alternative is to place the dough ball directly in the pan, and smash it down with your (wet) hand - being careful not to burn yourself. Don't let the dough dry out so much that you can't make it reasonably thin and flat. One tip is to aim for thinner centers and thicker circumferences.

Other postings in this series:
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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