KASHMIR KA HAAK
It had been a long and eventful day in Srinagar. The violent skirmishes outside made us grateful to be back inside the hotel but the cold did nothing to stave off hunger pangs. By the time the waiter brought a bowl of Haak ka Saag to the table we were ravenous.
Dr. Raina, a Kashmiri Pandit and Mumbai surgeon had one look at the simmering bowl and told the waiter to take it back. “This is saag. Please get Kashmiri Haak. No onions, no garlic. “
Fifteen minutes later the server returns with another bowl of wilted greens. And while they did look similar, they didn't smell or taste the same.
Haak Ka Saag is not made with spinach. It is neither the Mughlai Saag Paneerwala nor is it the Punjabi classic, Sarson da Saag made with mustard leaves and batua (pigweed). It’s a traditional Kashmiri dish made with not one but a variety of greens, mostly from the Acephalus family that includes cabbage, broccoli, kale and kohlrabi. Ganth gobi or Navalkole also known as Kohlrabi and Knolknol is an integral part of Kashmiri cuisine.
On several American websites collard greens is recommended as a substitute for Haak. Collard greens are also from the Acephalus family but while its leaves are long and chewy and the stems thick, most of the Haak greens I saw in Srinagar were delicate and tender. Haak has not quite made it to the national table in the same way as Saag Paneer and Sarson da Saag, possibly on account of its simple flavors and the fact that it must be made and served immediately.
The problem is there are various greens used in different seasons and grown in different parts of Kashmir and identifying them is not easy.
“ It’s a soupy and very aromatic dish.” Dr. Raina explains. You take a plate of rice, make a well in the center and ladle the soupy greens into the middle. It’s poor man’s food. On a lucky day a Kashmiri will get some meat with his meal.”
This is true because Haak uses leaves from vegetables that would otherwise be discarded while cooking.
Later that day another local Kashmiri Amit Wanchoo takes me to Jawahar market where he hands me three varieties of Haak. “This ones from Dal lake.” He says pointing to what looks like wavy spinach. “This one is from Khanyaar and these tender Haak- are Kaanul-spring time Haak.”
Haak is a Kashmiri Pandit dish. Asafetida used to season this dish is not a spice commonly employed by Muslims. Dr. Raina recalls childhood memories of meals in his grandfather’s home just a few doors away from Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah’s house.
“The leaves are always whole, you don’t chop them and the dish is always made with green chillies. Dr Raina elaborates. As kids when the pot with Haak was taken off the fire and the lid opened, the aroma permeated the entire house. That’s how you knew there was Haak for dinner. “
Haak it is believed was originally cultivated by the Greeks. Interestingly, asafetida was introduced to us by their close cousins, the Macedonians. Haak and its varieties are distinguished by season and by the thickness and length of their stems called Null and leaves called Vaattir.
Haak not only differs by season and Kashmir has 4 distinct weather changes but are often named after the neighborhoods they are grown in. Haak is so central to Kashmiri life that an entire vocabulary exists to describe various aspects of the dish. Kaathchie Haak is available in the Autumn. Noor bagh and Dal refer to the areas from which, the Haak could originate. The woven wicker basket specially designed for selling Haak is called Haak Foatt. A water-bed on a lake cultivating greens for Haak is referred to as Haak Raadh.
RECIPE FOR BATIH HAAK
Courtesy Rajni Wanchoo
Batih is Kashmiri for Pandit. Kashmiri also known as Koshur has many Perisan and Arabic borrow words but remains essentially an Indo-Aryan language close to Rigvedic Sanskrit (WIKI).
Haak is eaten by everyone in Kashmiri but is a Kashmiri Pandit specialty. This recipe from Srinagar resident Amit Wanchoo’s mother, is delectable.
The leaves are always cooked whole. Only very large or thick stalks may need to be trimmed or removed but traditionally the stalks are left on the leaf. The leaves must be boiled both uncovered and then in their own steam, covered for a while.
Haak should be cooked and served immediately.
• 1 kg whole fresh green haak leaves, washed and drained
• 1.5 tablespoons mustard oil
• 2-3 dried red Kashmiri chillies, stalks removed
• 3-4 whole green chillies, stalks removed
• 1/5 teaspoon heeng or asafetida
• Salt to taste