So spring has finally sprung… at least here in the UK. It’s amazing how the days of unseasonal snow and chilled-to-the-bones weather seem a distant memory. Now bright sunlight is sprinkled over everything like free-range egg yolks pushed through fine-mesh sieve; and daffodils have been peeping through the sand cautiously, looking like Victorian women’s bonnets.
I thought all this weather talk was purely a British trait, but having read several books by American authors, I realise that it’s an American convention, too: every American book I have read recently, without exception, contains lengthy, evocative descriptions of the weather. The weather is, in fiction as in real life, always a silent extra character in the background.
Of course, a change in the weather also means a change in the way we eat. I no longer want to eat hearty casseroles and baked dishes: just give me sprightly food, ideally in grass-green, sunlight-yellow, cherry blossom-pink… and other colours of the spring. And I don’t want in-your-face flavours this time of the year either.
This renowned Kashmiri dish, known as ‘haak’, makes good use of early-season tender leaves of spring greens. Use Kashmiri spinach, if you live in a part of the world where you have access to it. I have never seen Kashmiri spinach in the UK. Spring greens (collard greens in USA), are a perfectly suitable substitute, as is ordinary spinach. Or use a combination of different types of greens – I’m sure whatever variety is local to you would work well in this recipe.
The cooking technique used here – in which the greens are gently boiled in water and flavourings, tempered with onions and chillies, and finished with aromatic ground spices – is a traditional Kashmiri way of making this classic dish. You may, if you like, simply stir-fry the shredded leaves with spices if you want to retain their bright green colour and crisp texture.
The quantity of chillies may seem a lot to those who are not used to them, but Kashmiri chillies (widely available in UK supermarkets) are mild and used mostly for their vivid red colour; and in any case, you can adjust the quantity to suit your own taste – or replace the chilli powder with paprika. If you can’t find black cumin seeds (also available in supermarkets and Indian grocers), substitute ordinary white cumin seeds; but do not use fresh ginger in place of dried ginger powder – which is an authentic Kashmiri spice, used in many savoury dishes.
This recipe doesn’t have a sauce, making it ideal to serve as an accompanying vegetable. Serve with plain steamed rice, alongside a bean, lentil or paneer (Indian cheese) dish for a balanced meal – though to be perfectly honest, I’m happy to gobble it up with plain rice all on its own. Serves 4.
4 pints/ 2 litres water
1¼ lb/ 500g tender spring greens, stems removed and shredded
1 level teaspoon turmeric powder
6 fresh green spring garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon Kashmiri (or other mild) red chilli powder, steeped in ½ cup water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, trimmed, peeled and finely sliced
1 dried Kashmiri (or other mild) red chilli, slit
1 teaspoon Kashmiri (or other mild) red chilli powder
2 teaspoons black cumin seeds, crushed in a mortar or spice grinder
1 teaspoon dried ginger powder
1. Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add spring greens, turmeric powder, minced garlic, red chilli water, and salt. Stir well.
2. Lower the heat, cover the pan with a lid, and cook the greens until tender. There should be very little water remaining.
3. In a small frying pan, heat the oil on medium heat. Add the onions and fry until pale golden brown.
4. Add the dried red chilli to the onions and let it sizzle until it turns a couple of shades darker. Add the red chilli powder, and give the mixture a stir.
5. Pour the onion and chilli mixture into the cooked spring greens. Add the crushed black cumin and powdered ginger, and combine well. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve hot.