As winter sets in, the calls from mother to come over to the village get more frequent. It's not that she needs me to take her to doctor or pay her bills. The reason to invite me over is that she knows how much I like "green chicken".
"Puttar, sarson da saag te makki di roti bana rahi haan, aaja chheti, bahu nu laike." (I am cooking mustard leaves and corn bread, come fast, with my daughter-in-law)," she says in every conversation. Her sweet appeals, my wife's insisting and the street hawker's calling "saag lailo" make me more desperate to taste the "hara murga", a popular name given to the vegetarian dish to imply that it can match the best chicken in nutrition.
My wife never tasted saag at her parent's home but she is hooked now. On occasions, she has bought ready-made saag and makki di roti for my mother-in-law, and her family over there also has developed a taste for it. She always calls it "hara (green) saag" and I have to point out that "saag is always green". The craving for this great dish of Punjab forces me to take a break from the office and rush to the village with wife.
The aroma from the mustard fields along the route reminds me of the saag being prepared at home and I speed up my vehicle. Mother is happy to see that her son is home and will have his dish wish. After the exchange of greetings, she takes me to the chulha (earthen stove) over which the patila (a large cooking pot) full of spinach and spices is kept on heat since morning.
It is a speciality of the village saag that it is left simmering on the chulha from morning to evening, which is the secret of its unmatched taste. The city variant is prepared hurriedly in just two hours in a pressure cooker, so the flavour doesn't stand out.
Imaging saag with butter flowing over it, and makki di roti soaked finely in desi chee (butter oil). Savour it with long pieces of freshly uprooted radish from the kitchen garden and some hot green chilli. The experience is unforgettable. We always carry a big bowl of the dish back to the city, to relish it over the next few days with a dash of "tadka" (garnish).
Saag is an integral part of Punjabi cuisine. There are Punjabi folk songs in appreciation of the dish. Many city people, the old generation especially, yearn for village saag and makki di roti, and make calls to relatives and friends in villages to bring the dish whenever they visit.
The generous relatives bring bowls and tiffins-ful of saag that is enough to last a week. When the city folk visit someone in village or attend a function over there, they book their favourite dish in advance. It is on the platter of the Punjabis living abroad. Markfed has been exporting it to many countries for years. Packed food is not as delicious as fresh-cooked saag but is in great demand overseas, nevertheless.
Saag is on the menu at Punjabi weddings and other city functions in winter. One of my uncles from village attended a grand party in the city for the first time. Surprised to see saag served at the dinner, he could not help remark: "Saade pindan wich taan eh rulda, tusin sajayeya piya (in our villages, it is taken for granted, you city folk decorate it."