A simple dish of green leafy vegetables cooked with chickpeas is an excellent example of how simple cooking techniques and fresh seasonal ingredients are hallmarks of the daily menus in Punjabi households and Indian homes at large. Made with very few spices, this dish, is quite different from its meaty counterpart and sheds light on how food evolves and travels and gets recreated from memories.
The combination of the words, panj meaning five and ab meaning waters in Persian, makes the name Punjab. Punjab as we know today is a smaller fragment of a large region in northern India fed by five rivers (the Beas, Sutlej, Chenab, Ravi and Jhelum) which kept its soils fertile, making it rich and prosperous. Located strategically on the Silk Route, it witnessed many convoys and caravans loaded with textiles, spices, indigo, sugar, rice and implausible luxuries travelling to the Bukhara and Isfahan markets beyond the Caucasus Mountains, who took with them the tales of the undivided land of Punjab.
Those passing stories of Punjab's glory also brought invasions and attacks from its neighbours, conquests that lasted for centuries—from Darius and Alexander of Greece and Timur, the Scythians, Turks, Afghans and Mughals from Central Asia—and left their mark on its food, people and culture. The British followed the Mughals, although much later, and dealt with legendary rulers of Punjab like Maharana Ranjit Singh, again influencing its food.
The Punjabi cuisine has evolved over the years, and it's not one but many culinary styles melded into one. Continuing from the Indus Valley Civilization, one of the oldest in the world, the food of Punjab holds nuances of Persian, Afghani and Central Asian cooking, the fare of the North West Frontier Province—Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as its known today—and a sway of Kashmir through trade and marriage alliances.
The modern day Punjabi food in India is largely the food of eastern part of the undivided Punjab (like Ambala, Amritsar, Patiala, Ludhiana, Kapurthala) of the past along with all that the migrants brought with them from the western part that remained in Pakistan (like Lahore, Peshawar, Karachi, Rawalpindi) after partition and their many re-creations to relive the memories of their homelands left behind. The long, though turbulent but vibrant history of Punjab contributes much to its food identity. However the food that's popular as Punjabi food commercially is only a fraction of the entire cuisine and very different from what's cooked in Punjabi homes.
My journey with Punjabi food...
On a dry summer day in Bombay, I had stepped out of an autorickshaw, the strap of my satchel going around my chest to my back, and glanced at the window above my head. Auntie A was peaking from inside, clad in her cotton Punjabi salwar kurta, spectacles sliding on her nose and hands stuck on the grille. She had been waiting for this girl with the satchel to be her first paying guest.
Renting a room in your house to a stranger—a concept that was alien to both auntie and me initially—turned out to be a lifelong relationship of friendship and love that got better with time, and food. This was my firsthand acquaintance with Punjabi food—not what you eat in the restaurants, but what is cooked in a Punjabi household on an everyday basis.
While I watched and helped auntie—a sexagenarian who did many chores—as the sous chef in the kitchen, she sometimes talked about the pre-partition Punjab, fuzzy images of her then home often prominent in her remembering, the fleeing of her family members from Lahore and Karachi to Bombay in 1947. She would abruptly stop and move on to the kitchen scene at hand. It was almost like a sudden force from within that ceased her from narrating, evading the pain. Auntie would divert, "us zamane ke baare mein kya baat karni." What to talk about that time?
It was amidst those inadvertent mentions that she also talked about murgh chole (chicken with chickpeas), a dish that came from the other side of the border to Punjab in India along with the refugees and their tandoors, a precursor to the no-meat saag chole (greens with chickpeas), also known as saag chana, she taught me to cook. Auntie was a vegetarian, so saag chole was naturally her inclination.
Kabuli and Kala Chana...
Chickpeas, world's oldest and second most widely cultivated legume after soybean, have been growing in India and Pakistan from time immemorial. The local variety popular in these countries is the kala chana or desi chana, which is smaller in size with a darker skin than the variety known as garbanzo beans. The bigger lighter coloured garbanzo beans are called kabuli chana in India, the name implicitly pointing that the variety came from Kabul, Afghanistan. Auntie used either to make saag chole, although the white version usually blended well in the flavours of the green leaves.
More on Auntie style saag chole...
East Punjab before partition which is now the present day state of Punjab in India has always been the bread basket of the country and growing ground to a variety of vegetables and greens. It isn't a surprise that in this vegetarian part of Punjab, the murgh chole from Lahore got a makeover with fresh winter greens as saag chole. Saag is a Hindi word for a category of all leafy greens, of which spinach, mustard, fenugreek and radish greens are used extensively in Punjab. A state where agrarian life dominates the scene, harvested greens or saag are at their best in winters and often cooked as a concoction, also called as saag, wth minimal spices and topped with ghee. Behold the famous sarson ka saag (mustard greens) and makke ki roti (corn flatbread)!
To this mixed green saag, Auntie would add boiled chole and let the mixture slowly cook to a thick consistency. The tadka was typically Punjabi, consisting of onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and green chilies, but much lighter than the murgh chole, first cooked in dhabas by migrants who moved from Pakistan to India and had inherently cooked this in eateries in Lahore. The saag chole most likely could have a similar 'dhaba-origin' and simplified in home kitchens although there isn't concrete documentation. Auntie's version had no whole spices, no elaborate sautéing of onions and tomatoes, no cream or yogurt. It was understated, and extremely unpretentious, just how home cooking should be.
Green tomatoes and tomatillos...
What made Auntie's saag chole unique was that she used green tomatoes in the gravy. Those green tomatoes were essentially the red tomatoes that hadn't ripened, and sometimes the varieties that stay green after ripening. They are usually available in the market during early spring in India and during autumn in the western world when the air is crisp and not warm enough for the tomatoes to ripen further. The combination of fresh greens and green tomatoes explains the importance given to seasonal bounty and clean eating in households.
Green tomatoes are quite firm and acidic, and hold up well for slicing, dicing and frying. Their acidity and sourness mellows when cooked, making them ideal ingredients where you want a good balance of astringency and crunch. According to nutritionist and author, Nandita Iyer, who writes a fortnightly column for Mint Lounge:
Tomatoes are rich in alkaloids like solanine and tomatine, some of which are considered slightly toxic in very high doses. In this case, the toxicity could cause acidity, stomach discomfort or headaches in sensitive people. These alkaloids are heat resistant and will not get deactivated on cooking. As the fruit ripens, the toxicity in the alkaloids drops.
In Canada, I encountered tomatillos, a fruit which is easily confused with green tomatoes, thanks to the Spanish translation which means "little tomato." Belonging to the same family of their golden look alike, cape gooseberry, these fruits are native to Mexico and are sometimes called husk tomatoes. They're available all year around, although their prime season is from early summer through fall. Slightly more acidic and less sweet than both ripe and unripe tomatoes, and denser and less watery on the inside, they are ideal substitutes for green tomatoes. Like green tomatoes, their acidity also tones down when cooked.
Once I started cooking saag chole with tomatillos, there has been no looking back. They taste extremely good with the greens and chickpeas cooked in mustard oil, imparting a distinct subtle tartness. Here as the season favours, I whip up a pot of saag chole with tomatillos in spring and summer and with green tomatoes in fall and winter, although the saag always tastes best between autumn and spring. The Punjabi saag auntie made was a combination of greens rather one. Here, I oscillate between mixed leaves and only spinach depending on the season and availability.
The only point to keep in mind for this dish is to not complicate it! I advise strongly against overwhelming it with spices. Coriander and turmeric are the flag bearer spices in Punjabi home cooking, and they're pretty much the dominant spices in this dish too.
In the absence of green tomatoes or tomatillos, you could use regular red tomatoes. The taste will be slightly sweeter, but you can add some amchur (dry mango powder) for additional sourness.
Traditionally, the saag that's popular in the Punjabi food repertoire or any other cuisine in India is never ground in a blender to make a puree! For a fine gravy-like texture, the greens are chopped extensively fine and for a rustic sabji-like structure, they are chopped bigger. I chop all the greens as finely as I can, and make a puree of a handful of greens which helps retain and impart a good green colour in the overall dish after the whole thing is cooked.
For the best flavour, I recommend mustard oil, but you may substitute with any other oil if you wish.
1 bunch of spinach along with handful of any other greens of your choice, chopped fine (fenugreek leaves, radish leaves, mustard leaves work great) Note: You may use only spinach too
1/4 cup greens pureed
1/2 cup chickpeas soaked overnight or at least 5 hours
1 small red onion, chopped
2 small green tomatoes or tomatillos (use 1 red tomato + 1/2 tsp amchur as substitute)
4-5 cloves of garlic
1-2 green chilies
2 tbsp mustard oil (or any other as you wish)
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp carom seeds, coarsely pounded
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chili powder
1/2 tsp asafoetida
Salt to taste
In a pressure cooker, boil soaked and drained chickpeas with enough water, 1/2 tsp turmeric, whole green tomatoes or tomatillos and some salt. Once done, keep aside. Note: A pressure cooker should take 1 whistle on high heat and 4-5 whistles on low heat. For instant pot, boil at high pressure for 20 minutes. Let the steam escape naturally.
Using a pestle and mortar, coarsely pound the ginger, garlic and green chili.
Place a wok or heavy bottom pan on high heat and add oil. If using mustard oil, let it smoke up. Add cumin and carom seeds and once it crackles, add the pounded ginger-garlic-green chili. Sauté for about a minute and add the onions before they start to burn.
Sweat the onions and then add turmeric and red chili. Sauté for a minute and then add coriander and asafoetida. Keep sautéing and check on the chickpeas. Take out the shredded pieces of tomatoes or tomatillos and add them to the onions and spices mixture. Stir to combine. If using amchur, add it now.
Let everything simmer until you can see some oil getting release on the sides of the pan or wok. Add the chopped greens now and cook until they wilt and then add the green leaves puree or paste.
Cover and cook on medium to low heat for 10 minutes. Drain the chickpeas but don't throw the water.
Open the pan or wok and add the chickpeas first, stir to combine and cover and cook again on medium to low heat for 5 minutes. Open and add the water drained from chickpeas. The amount of water depends on how much gravy you want. Stir again and add salt as needed.
Let the gravy slowly simmer without being covered until it slightly thickens and comes to the consistency you desire.