Lounge loves: Going green with ‘haakh’
When winter gifts us with its bounty of greens, the best we can do is let their natural flavor shine through
How do you strip a leafy green of all its character? By reducing it to mush. First, by chopping the leaves fine, then putting them through a blender and finally drowning the purée in a one-masala-fits-all-dishes made of onions, ginger/garlic and tomatoes. And in case there is still some original flavour left, you mask it by adding fresh cream or butter. Now if someone were to ask you to deconstruct this dish, would you be able to identify the individual bits, or smell or taste anything beyond the masala?
Leafy greens are not meant to merge with the crowd but stand out without being loud, like that first snow of the season that falls silently in the night, untouched, stark and inviting when you look out of the window in the morning. Similarly, greens are meant to be enjoyed in their most basic form, without any frills taking away from their wholesomeness.
Take the everyday Kashmiri dish haakh (collard greens), for instance. It’s so frugal that it accommodates only hing (asafoetida) and green/red chillies, takes 5-10 minutes to cook and tastes and smells like what it is supposed to be: true to its essence, something which came off a plant and not out of a washing machine. Serve it with rice and a stellar dish like roganjosh or dumaloo, and it is not overshadowed. The roganjosh serenades the warm and direct pleasures of haakh, a perfect foil to its richness.
Since haakh is not available everywhere, Kashmiris cook spinach in the same fashion.
The other Kashmiri staples of monje (knol khol/kohlrabi) and turnips also follow the same recipe. I am digressing here, but a lot of people apply this steaming method to the much reviled cabbage and I have experimented with pak choi. Incidentally, knol khol, cabbage and collard greens belong to the same plant species, Brassica oleracea.
You could also try making beetroot greens or kalmi saag (water spinach/morning glory) in this manner.
250g haakh (or spinach)
A pinch of hing
1-2 tbsp mustard oil (less or more, depending on your taste)
Salt, to taste
1-2 dried red chillies (optional)
1-2 green chillies
Wash the greens thoroughly. Remove any pale, discoloured leaves. Leave a bit of the stem on and discard the rest (or chop it up and chuck it in too). Tear the leaves into two if big. Heat mustard oil in a pressure cooker to smoking point. Add hing and the whole red chillies. Then add the haakh and salt, stir for a couple of minutes, let the leaves wilt. Then add a little cold water to just about cover the leaves (some people like to add water first, followed by the greens, to retain the colour). Then close the lid and cook for one-two whistles. Release the steam immediately (otherwise the greens will start looking dull) and add cold water as required. Return to heat, add green chillies and give a couple of boils.
If you are using knol khol, lop off the crown (do not discard). Peel the remaining bit, chop roughly. Use the young, green leaves with part of their tender stems. Now follow the above recipe, but put the chopped bits and the crowns first. Stir for 5-7 minutes, then add the leaves.
In the case of turnip, discard the crown. If you want to cook cabbage, peel off the individual leaves. Steam for just about one whistle, as the cabbage can quickly turn to mush.
Add-ons: Spinach, haakh and knol khol pair well with brinjal (the long, slender ones. Fry them and add to the dish before taking off heat); and nadru or lotus stem (add the nadru first into the oil, sauté for 5-7 minutes, then add the greens). Lotus stem and turnips make a good combination too.
Flavouring: All the dishes can be finished with a sprinkling of Kashmiri vaer masala (various spices combined with oil, shaped into a disc and dried). It has a strong flavour.
Serve the haakh with rice, a side of aloo churmae or fried potatoes (sprinkled with salt and red chilli powder) and a bowl of curd. Now picture that snow outside the window.