Although saag is referred to colloquially as a poor man’s dish in Kashmir, it is eaten by rich and poor alike in the Valley. Furthermore, the Kashmiri diaspora is fond of growing this vegetable in their kitchen gardens in both Europe and America. In fact, saag is a broad term that refers to a variety of leafy vegetables grown in Kashmir, Punjab and other regions of the Indian subcontinent. However, it is the collard greens known as “saag” that are most widely grown in Kashmir.
People living in Srinagar distinguish the saag grown on city land from its cousin, grown on the marshy land in Dal Lake and deemed to be less tasty. Red spinach is also known as the king of saag and is cooked as a delicacy. When the English actress Joanna Lumley travelled to Bradford for a TV documentary, she met a group of Asian women who informed her that they had grown Kashmiri spinach on a community allotment. She proudly told them that she too is a Kashmiri, having been born in Srinagar in 1946 – a year before the Raj ended.
Whenever I visited my grandma’s home during my childhood in Srinagar, I was captivated by a large swathe of land, not far from her home, on which only saag was grown. I would sit on a parapet wall and watch the city farmers tending a big crop while their womenfolk would click the saag leaves one by one before tying them in small bunches and throwing them in a basket. The men would draw water from the wells in a bucket by pulling a rope attached to a wooden pole that went up and down like a seesaw.
One of the women from this farm would come to our neighbourhood every morning with a big basket of saag, balanced on her head over protective padded headgear, that she sold from door to door. She was quite tall and wore the long traditional garment known as a pheran. She counted the bunches of saag in fours and you could buy a score for a rupee. She would throw in an extra four bunches (like the 16th-century English bakers who added a complimentary 13th loaf to every dozen bought by their customers). Even then, some of her regular customers would bargain with her for four more free bunches.
In 1979 she went on a pilgrimage to Mecca which, in those days, took many months to accomplish as most of the pilgrims from Kashmir made the journey over land and sea, not by air. That year, there was a deadly incident at Mecca and some of the pilgrims died. We didn’t see our saag-walli for several weeks after other pilgrims had returned to Kashmir and so we assumed that she must have gone to her heavenly abode.
Then one day she returned, with her basket of saag balanced hands-free on her head. Everyone in the neighbourhood was thrilled to see her and the older women gave her a warm, welcoming hug.
When I was about ten years old, I grew saag in our walled kitchen garden in the old town of Srinagar. One day a cockerel belonging to our neighbours jumped over the wall and devoured my crop. I was distraught when I saw all my efforts laid to waste. My cousin, who reared a few chickens at his home, was even more upset when his mother decided to cook one of his chickens. He refused to eat dinner because he couldn’t bear to see one of his beloved chickens lying on his plate.
A soothing broth
In Kashmir, saag is either cooked on its own or with lamb, but it is always served on its own at weddings. An expert cook adds a few big spoonfuls of lamb broth to give the dish a rich flavour. A school friend’s mother once unwittingly added some lamb broth when she cooked saag for some guests who were vegetarians – fortunately they never found out. Some Kashmiri Pandits are not strictly vegetarian and eat lamb. I invited a Pandit friend to my home for dinner a couple of years ago and when I asked him if he preferred a vegetarian or non-vegetarian meal he jokingly replied that he would gladly eat the food of the rakshasa (demon) that day, thus revealing his predilection for a non-vegetarian meal.
Lamb broth is usually served in Kashmir when someone isn’t feeling well, much as chicken soup is referred to as “Jewish paracetamol” in North-West London. Incidentally, our family doctor in Kashmir would always advise a patient who was unwell to eat yoghurt with a hard-baked Kashmiri bread roll, as it was good for your gut.
For a long time, I didn’t think you could cook kale as saag though now it tastes just like it. I found Indian restaurants in London serving saag paneer, which in fact consists of spinach and cottage cheese. After I got married, my wife found curly kale on sale in a supermarket and started to cook it like Kashmiri saag. Since then she cooks it almost every day. Kale has become fashionable in London lately and is served as a salad with a lemon dressing.
Saag-chawal (rice) is the staple food in Kashmir. In Punjab, saag is served with roti but in Kashmir it is always accompanied by chawal. Many years ago, a politician who suggested that Kashmiris should eat home-grown potatoes instead of rice in order to be more self-sufficient was mocked for such an outlandish idea. My Punjabi friends in London eat Kashmiri saag with relish when they come over for dinner. It doesn’t matter to them whether it’s served with roti or not.
One day I found out that the city farm near my grandma’s home in Srinagar had been converted into a cricket stadium. I also discovered during my childhood that tobacco plants were being grown in another city farm in Srinagar. The green leaves of these plants looked like saag from a distance. The leaves were dried in the sun and turned into tobacco, to be smoked in hookahs. The dried tobacco was later mixed with a thick syrup.
In Srinagar, rumour has it that some nouveau riche artisans in the town filled their hookahs with milk instead of water, which has become a metaphor in Kashmir for outrageous spending. You can find glass hookahs filled with absinthe in a shisha lounge in Mayfair where they charge their Middle Eastern patrons more than 100 pounds for a smoke.
It is customary in Srinagar to offer a hookah to a guest if he is a habitual smoker of the locally produced tobacco. I used to run errands for guests at my family home to buy tobacco from a shop in our neighbourhood. The only question the tobacconist would ask me, before wrapping it in an old newspaper, was whether I wanted the light or heavy kind of tobacco. I had to memorise each guest’s preference.
The tobacconist would buy old notebooks from school-children to be used as wrapping paper. Families usually sold old printed textbooks to other children at the end of the academic year. It was a most effective circular economy.
Some of the older women in Kashmir smoke hookahs. One of my great-aunts was among them and I found it fascinating to watch her tilt its copper pot with one hand for the pipe to reach her mouth. The pipes of the hookahs in Kashmir are rigid as they are made of bamboo and therefore you have to sit straight to smoke rather than leaning on a bolster when the pipe is of a flexible variety.
A neighbour’s dish
The other green vegetable grown abundantly in Kashmir is kohlrabi. Its leaves aren’t as tender as those of collard greens and you have to cook them for a bit longer. The name of this vegetable is proverbial in Kashmiri for the daily grind. These days you can find all kinds of exotic vegetables, from kohlrabi to dudhi, on display at greengrocers in London. I sometimes buy kohlrabi at an international grocer’s in Golders Green, more for its saag- like leaves than its bulbs.
It is a challenge for most parents to get their children to eat green peas, let alone a leafy vegetable like saag. Knowing my aversion to turnips, my mother would change its name from Kashmiri to Urdu whenever I asked her what she had cooked for dinner. At other times she would borrow a dish from our next-door neighbour when I refused to eat what she had cooked that day, since in one’s childhood a neighbour’s cooking almost always tastes better than your own mother’s.
Nowadays, when I visit my parents in Srinagar, I ask my mother to cook saag. My father still grows it in his kitchen garden and shares it with his neighbours.
Grown on the marshy land in Dal Lake, Saag is sold by weight, whereas the kind grown in the city is sold by the bunch. While preparing it for cooking, the leaves are checked one by one and the stem is removed if it is a bit tough. It is painstaking work and you usually end up getting rid of a bigger portion than the one you cook.
Kashmiris cook saag in many different ways. In its simplest form, saag is steamed and served as a dish in itself. Occasionally you would add a whole aubergine to a pot of saag to make it more palatable. In Kashmiri villages, many people pickle saag. Fish and saag are usually cooked together on special occasions. To mark the arrival of spring, my friend’s mother always cooked fish and saag on Nowruz. The fish mostly used the carp found in the Dal that is sold by fisherwomen in Srinagar.
In the summer of 2016, I ventured from my parents’ home on my bike during curfew to stretch my legs and visit a friend I’d not seen for a long time who lived at the foot of the Zabarwan Mountains. On my way back, I saw a woman in colourful gear selling fish on Foreshore Road. I got off my bike to have a look at the fish in her tub. The fisherwomen in Srinagar usually hide their catch from the searching gaze of a prospective customer by covering their tubs with a moist cloth that also keeps the fish cool. They often take a big fish out to persuade a bargain-hunter to buy from them.
It is never easy for a man to bargain with these ladies because their smooth talk is so disarming and commanding of deference that they can out-bargain most potential customers. An exception was an uncle of mine who on one occasion encountered a fisherwoman in a market who addressed him as “brother-in-law”. Being streetwise, he told her that he was no one’s brother-in-law and she should quote a more realistic price for her fish.
A hard bargain
One fisherwoman whom I saw sitting on the bank of the Dal Lake on Foreshore Road poured all her fish into a plastic carrier bag and handed it to me before I’d even agreed to buy them. The fish were very small and I knew that my mother would be none too pleased with my purchase. I told the fish-seller that I didn’t want to be thrown out of my parent’s home. She took the bag back and offered to cut and clean the fish herself to save my mother the trouble of taking their guts out, a time-consuming business that requires expertise.
She cleaned the fish effortlessly in no time at all before handing them back to me in the carrier bag. When I asked her the price, she said that I could pay her the next time I was around. I told her that I didn’t live in the town and was only visiting my parents for a few days. She retorted that in that case I didn’t need to pay her anything at all, thus putting me in the position of being indebted to her, which would be very much to her advantage in any future transactions with me. I had to insist that she accept my payment.
When I got home with the fish I related the incident to my mother. She said that the fisherwoman was well-known for her bargaining skills and had once sold fish to my cousin, together with the tub, even though he is known to be a cautious businessman. It made me smile, knowing that I didn’t stand a chance of refusing the fisherwoman’s offer. My mother observed that the fish I’d brought her were such small fry that she couldn’t cook them with saag and decided to serve the fish as an appetiser instead.
These days, whenever small fish are served as an appetiser, I’m reminded of the dried fish my grandmother liked to cook during my childhood.
Iqbal Ahmed was born in Kashmir in 1968 and has lived in London since 1994. His first two books were chosen as Books of the Year: Sorrows of the Moon in The Guardian and The Independent on Sunday, and Empire of the Mind in The Economist. He is currently working on a memoir, Portrait of a Friend: Arne Sorenson.
This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Husain Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.