Indian Spinach (Palakchi Bhaji)
My mom comes from a long line of women who cooked without measuring cups and spoons. The execution of a traditional dish is like the retelling of an epic poem — the storyline has been passed from generation to generation by demonstration rather than by pen and paper.
A little more than a year ago I was at home trying to copy down this recipe as she cooked. I’d watch her blindly throw in some chili powder with a dinner spoon. “Wait, you forgot to measure that!” I’d complain. I’m sure for her, cooking is visceral. It’s about trust in the tradition of what you’re making, memories of what you saw your mother do, and familiarity with ingredients you’ve handled hundreds of times. Talk about faith of a mustard seed.
Sometimes I also think that this cavalier method of cooking is a way to keep me coming home: these dishes, snatched out of the air and written down as recipes for my benefit, never taste quite the same in this kitchen.
One more thing: Don’t get squeamish about all of the oil in this recipe; you need fat in vegetarian dishes to carry flavor and help keep you full. I used to try skimping on the oil when I was learning to make Chana Masala. Eating it was like falling asleep face down with my mouth open at the beach: the spices didn’t dissolve. They remained a grainy bane of my existence in every attempt until I actually started following my mom’s directions.
- 1 cup toor daal (aka pigeon peas)
- 6 cups water
- 2 Tbsp oil
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 16oz bag frozen spinach
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 2-3 tsp salt
For the fodni:
- 2 tsp black mustard seeds
- 3 Tbsp oil
- 3 cloves garlic, sliced into slices of equal thickness
Wash the daal and cook with water in a stockpot (put a wooden spoon in the stockpot so that the water does not boil over). Cook on a high flame, stirring every 10 minutes for 20 minutes until the daal looks soupy. Turn off the flame.
In a big, deep pan, add the oil and warm on a high flame for 1 minute. Add the mustard seeds, and cover the pot. Wait until the mustard seed has popped (their color will turn grey). Turn off the flame when the seeds start popping.
Remove the cover and add a full bag of spinach. Cook on a medium flame, covered, until the spinach defrosts. Break it up with a wooden spoon as it defrosts to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom. (Optional: when the spinach is defrosted you can pulse it in a food processor to make it smooth. I don’t do this.)
Put the spinach back in the pot. Add the cooked daal. Add the turmeric, the chili powder, and the salt. Add water if necessary so that it doesn’t dry out for the next step.
Stir well. Taste to adjust the salt. Cook on low/medium flame, stirring frequently for 15 minutes. Remove to a container. When the container cools, store in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer until block exams.
For the fodni:
Add the oil to a small pot and warm for one minute on a high flame. Turn off the heat and add the mustard seed and immediately cover the pot. When the mustard seed begins to pop, turn off the flame. When the mustard seeds have popped add the garlic and swirl to fry until the garlic is a gold brown. Add to the spinach and mix before eating.
Serve with chapati or (brown) rice.
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