Monika Manchanda writes about the lush world of winter greens, and the many different ways it receives the royal treatment around the country.
Winter, when the shops are brimming with fresh greens, and my fridge is often overloaded with soppu, is when I am happiest.
A walk through my neighbourhood market reveals fresh winter vegetables, but to me, what really stands out are the greens. In winter, in the markets, I am always drawn to the soppu seller with his fresh leafy greens. It is a delight to spend time at the stall, chatting about various greens, exchanging local names, and spotting new ones.
From the tender baby palak (spinach) to the world famous sarson (mustard) to lesser-known varieties like bathua (lamb quarter), found in the northern plains of Delhi, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the sheer variety is mind blowing. Though these greens are most famously used in dishes like sarson ka saag or palak paneer, they are used to make many other beloved winter dishes like saag mutton (made with a mix of sarson and palak), raitas (bathua and palak), and various combinations of paranthas.
Beautiful Kashmiri greens like Haaq (Collard Greens), Sochal (whose English name I haven’t figured out yet) deserve poetry of their own, given the delicate treatment each region offers them. From simple stir fries with chilli and garlic in mustard oil, to beautiful gravies with meat, Kashmiris handle their greens with reverence.
In the south, there is a whole range of greens that come to market in winter — Basale Soppu (Malabar Spinach, also known as pui shaak in Bengal), Gongura, Brahmi, and many more. Used most commonly in dals and stir-fries, the sparing use of spices and the sharp tang of tamarind bring out their flavours beautifully.
But the winter greens aren’t limited to green leafy vegetables. There are other winter specials like green peas, cholia (fresh garbanzo beans), and cauliflower, without which winter wouldn’t be complete. And traditionally, it isn’t just the seeds and flowers that are cooked: Green pea pods are used to make a sabji that is a true labour of love; a laborious peeling of the outer layer of pods to make a dish that fully rewards the effort. My mum would also make a delightful soup from these pods. The leaves of cholia are used in bhaaji, dals, and a dish from UP that I recently discovered called ‘chane ke saag ka rikwachh.’ In this dish, besan and cholia leaves are steamed together, then stir fried much like the kothambir vadi, but the end result is much more flavourful. And as I remember, my grandmother would even use the cauliflower flower leaves — they sadly don’t even make it past the market and into homes, anymore. But she used the leaves and stems in a winter delicacy, called danthal ki sabji; growing up it was my least favourite sabzi, but like life’s many ironies, it is one that I now crave.
Winter also brings root vegetables and their glorious leaves. The red-tinged beetroot leaves that are perfect for a chutney, or dal; the shalgam ke patte that are delicous in a bhaaji, and cooked with mutton; and radish leaves that elevate the simple mooli ka parantha to stratospheric levels. And if you are lucky enough to find carrot leaves, chop them fine, and knead then into flour to make a most delicious roti. Bengalis use the bottle gourd and kohlrabi greens to make a dish called saag chorchori, which is essentially various vegetables cooked together with the greens, where the leaves are the real star of the show.
Winter greens bring cheer to otherwise dull and grey winter days. And they are so versatile, they lend themselves just as well to non-Indian dishes as well. From pestos to salads, your imagination is the only thing holding you back. For now, here’s a Mixed Winter Greens and Feta Hand-pies recipe to get you started.
Recipe: Mixed Winter Greens and Feta Hand Pies
(Makes 4 medium-sized hand pies)
For the hand pie dough
120 gm flour
60 gm butter, cold
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tbsp cold water (if needed)
For the pie filling
2 cups of mixed winter greens (I used a mix of bathua, malabar spinach, dill leaves — but most greens should work)
4 cloves of garlic
1 tsp chilli flakes
¼ cup feta (or more if you like)
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
To make the hand pie dough, add the flour, and cold butter to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. You can do this with hand also by rubbing the butter and flour in between your finger tips.
Add the lemon zest & juice and pulse again until the dough comes together. Add 1 tbsp of cold water if the dough feels dry. Wrap in cling wrap and rest in the fridge for about 1 hour.
While the dough is chilling, get your filling ready. Clean your greens thoroughly, I like to rinse them in running water twice followed by a soak in cold water for 10 minutes and gently picking them from the top so that the mud remains down. Dry the greens a bit and chop them roughly.
In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat olive oil and add chopped garlic. Sauté for one minute and add the chopped greens. Sauté further for 5 minutes till the greens are a bit wilted. Be careful to not overcook the greens.
Add salt, chilli flakes and switch off the gas. Set aside the greens for cooling. Once the greens are slightly cool, add crumbled feta cheese to the mix. Set aside the mixture till the dough is ready.
Once the dough is chilled, roll it out to a half-inch thick rectangle. Using a pizza cutter, divide the dough into 4 roughly equal rectangles. In the middle of each rectangle, place a generous amount of filling. Fold to cover the hand pie and use fork to seal the edges.
Brush a little egg wash over the pies and sprinkle black sesame seeds on top.
Bake the pie in a preheated oven at 180C for 20-25 minutes till it is golden brown.
Serve warm with dip of choice and a fresh salad for crunch.
Monika Manchanda is an ex-IT person turned food writer, culinary consultant & trainer. You can find more of her writings on her blog Sin-A-Mon Tales along with many other online and offline publications.
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