Food is an indispensable part of our being, an integral part of our identity. After all, we are what we eat. So, what happens when we move from the place we were born and brought up in, the land that influenced and guided our culinary preferences? No matter how we change or adopt our food habits to something new, we often seek the flavours we grew up eating. We set our hearts to find old ingredients in new markets and earnestly cook food from our memories in our new kitchens. This notion is a recurring truth in the stories of migrating and relocating communities, and one such tale is the story of Sindhis and their food.
Hailing from the Sindh province in Pakistan after the partition of India and Pakistan, the Sindhi culture goes back to as old as the Indus Valley Civilization. The beauty of Sindhi cuisine is that it's extremely simple and owing to its birth along the the Indus river, it was naturally dominant in fresh produce cooked with minimum spices. The touch of neighbouring cuisines such as Gujrati, Kutchi and Punjabi and the adoption of Persian and Arabian flavours due to invasions presents a beautiful blend in Sindhi cooking.
The Sai Bhaji is one of my personal favourites from the Sindhi cuisine. 'Sai' in Sindhi means green and 'bhaji' means a curry. True to its name, this dish boils down to as simple and holistic a recipe can be. A variety of greens are cooked with lentils and vegetables to create a gravy that is best served with another Sindhi creation, Bugge Chawal or Bugha Chawal, a preparation of rice with caramelized onions and whole spices. You could also eat it with roti or flat bread or even dunk dinner rolls in it to satisfy the cravings for a optimally thick and mushy gravy!
The philosophy of Sai Bhaji
Sai Bhaji is made of three key ingredients, greens, vegetables and lentils. Each of these has a role to play in the dish. The greens lend it the color while the over cooked lentils and vegetables make the base of the gravy. The idea is to make a a thorough mix of everything where no ingredient remains indistinguishable to the eye yet you can taste each one as you eat.
Key points to cook Sai Bhaji
Cooking with minimum spice is often not as simple as it may sound. The fewer the spices, the lesser is your control over the food, the more the tendency of one or two spices taking over the flavour of the entire dish. Sai Bhaji is also one such dish but don't be intimidated by this. It's a forgiving recipe, and there are ways to fix things up if you mess up somewhere!
Typically Sai Bhaji uses some specific kinds of greens namely spinach, sorrel (khatta palak), dill (sua) and fenugreek leaves. If you don't have all of these greens, you can still make it! Spinach is a dominant player amidst them all.
If you can't find fresh fenugreek leaves, you can add kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves) in the end and it will keep the flavour intact. And, that's exactly what I have done in this recipe.
Sorrel lends a nice tangy note to the gravy. I was lucky to find a tiny bunch of sorrel at the farm market here for this recipe. However, if you can't find sorrel in your local store, you can use an additional tomato or add a teaspoon of amchur (dry mango powder).
Of all the variations of Sai Bhaji I have eaten, I like it best with chana dal (split chickpeas or split Bengal gram). It's staple in the Indian grocery stores, and if you live outside India like me, you'd still be able to spot it easily in the lentils section.
If you somehow cannot find chana dal, I suggest using a combination of tur (pegion pea) and yellow moong dal (yellow split gram) or pink masoor dal (red lentils).
It's not complicated. If you're confused, just get a can of your favourite lentils and make it!
Choose vegetables that will loose their shape and turn soggy faster. The typical ones used in Sai Bhaji are potatoes, eggplants and arbi (taro root). I have made this recipe with potato and brinjal.
Other vegetables that I have tried and work well are carrots, zucchini, yam and bottle gourd. There's a whole gamut. Pick and choose!
1 bunch spinach with a handful of sorrel washed and finely chopped
1/4 to 1/2 cup dill leaves washed and chopped
2 tbsp kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves) or 1/2 cup fresh fenugreek leaves washed and chopped
1/2 cup chana dal (split Bengal gram or split chickpeas) soaked for 30 minutes
1 potato chopped
1 small eggplant chopped
1 large onion chopped
2 small tomatoes chopped
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp cumin
4-5 cloves of garlic pounded
1/2 inch ginger pounded
1/4 tsp heeng (asafoetida)
2 green chilies chopped
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp red chili powder (optional)
1 tsp coriander powder
Salt to taste
Place an instant pot or pressure cooker or any pot on medium heat, add oil and once the oil is hot, add cumin, ginger and garlic, asafoetida and green chilies. Give everything a good mix and let the ginger garlic turn slightly golden. Take care to not burn it. Note: If you're using an instant pot, set it on sauté mode for 15 minutes.
Add the onions and sauté till translucent. Do not let the onions turn brown. Next add the potatoes and eggplant and toss with the onions.
Add the turmeric, red chilli and coriander and sauté for a couple of minutes with splashes of water if anything sticks to the pot or pressure cooker.
Add the tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes start becoming soggy. At this stage, add the lentils and mix everything well.
Add the greens and mix again, pushing the greens down if your pot is small and the greens seem to come to the top. Let the greens wilt (which will take a few seconds) and then add about 1 cup of water. Sprinkle salt and 1/2 tsp kasoori methi if you're not using fresh fenugreek leaves. Note: Adding water can be tricky in this recipe. Remember the greens will also loose water. So add about 1 cup of water or enough to let everything submerge. If you add more water, do not worry. You can let the dish simmer away later for the extra water to evaporate.
Close the lid of the pressure cooker or pot. If using instant pot, close the lid and now set the pot to pressure cook mode. Pressure cook the lentils for 30 minutes in an instant pot or at least 6 whistles in a pressure cooker. If using a normal pot, cook covered for at least 45 minutes or until everything is tender and mushy.
After the dish is ready, check seasoning and add more salt if needed. If you're using kasoori methi, add another 1/2 tsp now. Adjust water and let the dish simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes. At this stage, take a potato masher and mash the mixture well to attain a slightly thick consistency. Note: If using an instant pot, you will need to switch back to the sauté mode for 5 minutes.
Switch off the heat and serve with rice or flat bread, or simply slurp the curry with a soup spoon!