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.
This entry was posted in Indian, Vegetarian. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Indian Spinach (Palakchi Bhaji)

  1. Asha says:

    Anita! This is my FAVORITE bhaji! I make it almost the same way, but I’m a fan of adding mushrooms to it to change things up a little bit! It requires more spice and salt to get the mushrooms to soak up the spice, but it’s equally delicious. keep cookin! 🙂

    • Anita says:

      I’ll have to try the mushrooms! And we should have a cooking session wherein you teach me everything you know, because I know very little so far. Thanks for reading!!

  2. Cover says:

    Your pictures look especially good this post!

  3. Smita says:

    Hi Anita

    Your pictures are amazing as usual!
    The Indian phrase for cooking without measuring is “cooking by undaaz”. It is very liberating as you learn to truly use your instincts and develop a knowledge of ingredients and spices and how they combine to produce flavor (which cannot be easily obtained by just following a recipe). It is like painting “en plein air”. The knowledge obtained is helpful in cooking non-Indian cuisines as well.

    • Anita says:

      I think I’ve heard you use that phrase before. I’m getting better at it, but I still like to memorize ratios. For Chana Masala I now remember that everything is 2 tsp except the garam masala.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What is 6 + 12 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is:
IMPORTANT! To be able to proceed, you need to solve the following simple math (so we know that you are a human) :-)