A Significant element of a meal - Greens

An acquired taste - Shaak - bhaja

Majority of us Bengalis have grown up having a multi - course meal starting with korola bhaja ( fried bitter gourd) or neem pata bhaja ( crisp fried neem leaves and not curry leaves), along with a portion of Shaak - bhaja (stir fried green leafy veggies) gradually moving on to the main dishes comprising of bhaat (rice), daal (lentil soup), some vegetarian dishes like chocchori ( a Bengali version of mix - veg) and a non - vegetarian preparation, may be a fish / chicken / mutton curry. Finally to finish it all off, we would have something sweet like mishit doi / rosogolla / payesh / sandesh or some simple tomato chutney !! Among all these did anyone notice the change of flavours where all your taste buds are ignited gradually..starting with bitterness of korola (may be the bitterness clears your palette and increases your hunger), slowly proceeding to the spicy main dishes and then sealing the deal off with sweetness? Believe me, this version of a meal is a daily affair even today, in every Bengali household (where you will find at least one daunting female figure : in my case my Maa, who had taken a job upon herself to load you with enough nutrients) and not some occasional celebration of Bengali's "baro mashe tero parbon" ( Bengalis are famously known to celebrate at least 13 festivals in 12 months which we get in a year).

So, when I moved to Delhi and started managing my kitchen myself, it became impossible to cope with your own appetite when you have to satisfy yourself with only roti - sabji as a meal. Its when you realise your much desired independent life ( which you dreamt of as a child) has come with a price tag - a proper home - cooked multi - course meal !! And, sometimes its not the fish or the meat preparations which you will miss, but the less celebrated vegetarian Bengali dishes are the ones which you long for.

 One such gem is Shaak bhaja which can be prepared with any leafy vegetables like spinach or mustard greens or beet root greens or even the leaves of radish ( throwing away of which is forbidden) or a mixture of a couple of them. To add a little crunchiness and texture few of us add some peanuts and / or boris (lentil fritters) into the greens. Whichever shaak you choose, each one comes with its own set of healthy properties. Remember Popeye, with his can - full of spinach which gave him strength to fight the world? Although built on a misconception that spinach is exceptionally rich in iron content, this cartoon character did a good job by increasing spinach consumption among kids worldwide because spinach is, in fact loaded with several phytonutrients and vitamins including vitamin K which helps in developing your bone health. So that day when my vegetable vendor pleaded his otherwise reluctant lazy customer with his fresh spinach greens (understanding the unavailability of time and energy which goes into the process of cleaning the greens) this time, I couldn't refuse since I just got home a bottle of Kashundi ( a thick mustard sauce with a hint of garlic and several other spices popularly used as a dipping accompaniment for several snacks). A few drops of this Kashundi successfully enhances the experience of the flavour - packed shaak stir fried in mustard oil.

Such soothing colour..Green

Hence, here is a recipe of a simple, tasty but at the same time not - so - popular Bengali version of Palak ( palong shaak as we call it). Much less laborious than Palak Paneer where you need to boil, cool, grind and temper, this vegan dish is an easy, healthy alternative to have your weekly dose of greens.

  • Spinach greens - 500 grams washed and cleaned rigorously. Few people boil the greens and throw away the water but I don't approve that as the process drains away majority of the nutrients. Roughly chop them up.
Roughly chopped and washed or vice versa

  • Peanuts - a fistful (optional)
  • Bori - 3-4 (optional)
  • Dried red chilli - 1-2
  • Kalo zeere (kalonji / onion seeds) - 1 teaspoon

Tempering and texture ingredients

  • Mustard oil - 3-4 teaspoons ( of course you can add more but I prefer to keep it healthy with minimal oil)
  • Turmeric powder - 1 teaspoon
  • Salt to taste
  • Heat a non stick wok and add in he mustard oil.

Wok with oil

  • Put in the peanuts and boris  and fry them till brown over low flame. Take them out.

Two of the stir - fried ingredients
  • Temper the same oil with the onion seeds and dried red chillies.

  • Toss in the roughly chopped greens. Cook them uncovered over high flame with occasional stirring.
Spinach greens added

  • After the leaves have wilted, you will notice the volume decreasing already. Add in the salt and turmeric powder. Remember to add much less salt than usual because the volume would decrease further and spinach too is naturally salty.

Addition of turmeric and salt 

  • Its time to add back the peanuts and boris (break them into pieces with your spatula, once added in the wok).

Crunchy peanuts and broken boris 

  • Now, all you have to do is leave the wok uncovered, stir occasionally and wait till all the water from the leaves evaporate.

Ready to go

You can keep the shaak moist or can dry them out a little upon your liking. Enjoy Shaak - bhaja with some roti, paratha or most favourably with some plain white rice ( in this case with a hint of Kashundi).

Feed yourself some greens like this once in a while..its worth the effort!!!

P.S. Some finely chopped garlic pieces if added while tempering the oil in step 3 can also do some wonders in creating variations to this dish. Sometimes we also add little dices of brinjal instead, in step 2 to give an extra texture to the shaak.


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