Unfortunately, some Indo- Anglo, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants and take-aways continue to confuse the Western diner with misinformation on their menus especially when presenting saag as spinach, which is usually accompanied with paneer, an Indian cheese.
I think the mistake was originally innocently made in the 1970s and 1980s by some employees working in the ‘Indian’ catering business, whose first language may have not been English, and therefore were not familiar with the English translation of Sarson ka saag, so it was much easier to describe it to interested diners as spinach puree, than Mustard greens. After all mustard greens were not a familiar vegetable in the West, it was not even available at supermarkets and still isn’t, similar to that of calalloo. But this misinformation has continued to be perpetuated by even some of the more well known ‘Indian’ establishments and 'celebrity' chefs who should know better.
So let me try and help clarify this a little. Palak is spinach and Sarson is mustard greens and Saag is a generic name for cooked and pureed greens. There are many variations of saag dishes. Saag dishes can be made with many other greens or a mixture of these such as kales, spring greens, perpetual spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, fenugreek, even spinach in which case it should be known as palak saag. Essentially a real saag is made with mustard greens and is traditionally known as Sarson ka saag.
Another thing, mustard greens are not cooked in little time. Unlike spinach that only needs a few minutes of heat to be wilted and it is ready. A real sarson ka saag dish takes all day to cook, as its leaves are much thicker and robust to break down. Traditionally, some Asian women start cooking these large bundles of chopped greens the evening before, and the pot is still bubbling away in the morning being gently stirred with love now and again. Traditional Sarson ka saag is a labouring dish, not one to be rushed. It is this slow cooking method that gives it that creamy and thick silky texture. Saag should cling thickly to the gorscht (lamb), murgi (chicken), or the vegetarian option of paneer (Indian cheese), whereas palak saag would simply fall off the spoon. Palak upon cooking also has a watery consistency. Connoisseurs of real saag would spot and smell the difference immediately.
Sarson ka saag is very popular in parts of the Punjab and amongst traditional south Asian families: whether they are Sikhs, Hindus, Christians or Muslims. It is often eaten with either plain boiled basmati rice or with home made maize or corn makki ki roti (flat round bread) that is yellow in colour. Makki ki roti also takes time to make. As a child, I never liked saag or the texture of makki ki roti. Not many kids do like greens when they are young. For me first it was the fact that they were greens, second it was the lingering smell of sarson ka saag cooking, it was very reminisce of cabbages being boiled, but as I got older I have grown to like and not love the taste that I relish at the thought of my mother making it. It is even more delicious with tarka: ghee or butter infused with garlic and onions and poured over, very fattening, and very moreish. An authentic and good saag dish is hard to find, unless you go to a reputable Indian or Pakistani restaurant; or are ever lucky enough to be invited to share a meal at the house of a South Asian colleague whose womenfolk indulge in such culinary pleasures.
I want to share a childhood memory that returned to mind while I was writing this piece. My mother is very familiar with wild food; especially those ‘edible weeds’ used in the South Indian cuisines. As a child of 9 years, I remember my mother and a number of south Asian women picking wild mustard greens in the middle of a busy town roundabout junction. Yes that’s what I said a busy roundabout in the middle of a road. Madness! I was literally shrinking with embarrassment as drivers would beep their car horns at the danger they were causing, some of the drivers even went so far as hurling (racist) abuse at these South Asian women, which also included me. Ah some things don’t change.
These days my mother makes a journey (just over 2 hours) to either Southall, London or Small Heath or Sparkhill, Birmingham to purchase bundles of mustard greens if she so desired to make Sarson ka saag at home, as these are still hard to come by at South Asian grocery stores in Wales. But I bet you, if she was to see mustard leaves growing wild and free on the side of the road on a motorway, she’s be there, picking.
Sarson ka saag is not a dish I would create myself; as it is so labour intensive and I do not have the patience, so instead it is one that I hold dear as part of my childhood and only eat when my mother makes it for me, lovingly. To end, something my mother once said ‘real saag is king and palak is the prince’ and I think this is true to those who know the difference.