Rustic Meets Trendy (Part 1)

Sarson da saag, Makki di roti aur Chaas

In the last article on deconstruction (which you can check out here), we talked about the pros and cons of this culinary trend, how it can go terribly wrong and how it can completely transform a classic. We restricted ourselves to speculations and sketches with the analysis of a blueberry cheesecake. This time, we’ll switch from theory to practice and go down the savoury route with Punjab’s iconic winter comfort food: sarson da saag te makki di roti.

The rustic

Let’s break down the meal. At its heart we have sarson da saag, the primary ingredient in which is mustard greens. These grow in abundance in Punjab, especially in the winter months. Like mustard seed and mustard oil, these greens too have a sharp, familiar pungency which gives the dish much of its flavour, although it is also generously spiked with green chilli, garam masala and other spices, and served with a generous helping of white butter. 

And where there is sarson da saag, there is makki di roti. Made with maize flour, these flatbreads have a yellow hue and are much thicker and heavier than the usual wheat flour based rotis. Generously rubbed with butter or ghee, they have a subtle flavour of their own, but they mostly serve as a vehicle for the punchy flavours of the saag.

Apart from butter, you could also have some jaggery to accompany the meal, which provides a welcome sweetness to counteract all the spice. Another popular accompaniment is chaas, which translates to buttermilk in Indian English. (Not to be confused by what the Westerners call buttermilk, which is basically the liquid left behind after churning butter out of cultured cream). It is a tangy drink made with yoghurt, water and flavourings like black salt, pepper and roasted cumin and dried mint, and helps to cleanse the palate. An alternative is the famous chatti di lassi (chatti refers to the clay containers in which the drink is made), which is usually creamier and richer than a chaas.

I happened to have two completely different versions of the same dish within a week’s span, last winter. Travelling from Chandigarh to Gurgaon, we stopped at a roadside highway dhaba on the way. It was late November and sarson da saag was in season, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to order my first plate of this North Indian classic. And of course, I didn’t regret my decision. The rotis, generously slathered with ghee were the perfect cutlery to mop up the spicy and buttery saag, with the chunks of jaggery to cool things down when things got too hot. It was a memorable, hearty lunch.

Just two days later, I visited a restaurant called Farzi Café in Gurgaon’s Cyberhub, known for its quirky take on Indian classics, with dishes like daal chawal arancini and rasmalai tres leches on its menu. One dish, however, caught my eye. It was a revamped version of the meal I had had recently. Curious, I ordered their sarson ke gilawat. The dish I was served couldn’t be more different from the one I had at the roadside eatery.

The trendy

This was a deconstructed dish, with a very modern linear plating. The saag was transformed into a patty, like a vegan version of the famous Gilawati kabab of Lucknow made with lamb mince and spices. The makki di roti were reduced to puffy miniature discs cut in half. To reinforce the element of corn, there were some spiced popcorn on the plate, which add another dimension of texture.

The mustard flavour of the patty was accented by dollops of yellow mustard, and just alongside lay dots of mint chutney and also some of thick yoghurt, the precursor to the chaas. The chaas itself was transformed into a reverse spherified orb (more on that in an upcoming article) which burst in the mouth releasing its delightful tang. And finally, there were tiny slices of pickled red onions strewn like gemstones across the plate, providing a sharp acidity to counteract all the richness.

Eight components composed seamlessly together to create artwork on a plate. When you eat them together, the flavours are familiar, yet different. You get the crunch of the popcorn, the freshness of the mint, the acidic bite of the onion; things that were missing from the original. But there were things in that rustic roadside meal that were conspicuously absent in this edible artwork: the sweetness of the jaggery, the almost menacing heat and spices, and perhaps most importantly, the entire experience of dunking the ghee-soaked roti into the smooth, buttery saag.

Was this dish an honest representation of the original? No. Was it a great dish, nonetheless? Definitely. And that is what matters. What we have here is an homage to a classic, not a cheap remake. It offers a lot of things missing from the original (textural variety, for example). There is no point comparing the two despite the apparent similarities.

Unlike the cheesecake we saw last time, this one isn’t meant to be an exact replica; it’s a modern take on a classic, with touches of its own. Try to forcefully deconstruct the meal and you might have been served torn up chunks of roti with big dollops of saag and orbs of chaas. And with that we run into the inverted cheesecake issue all over again: why bother to take a dish apart if it adds nothing to it?

Farzi Café’s take on this rustic trucker’s lunch isn’t a forcefully deconstructed dish, but a total makeover, that retains enough aspects of the original to make it reminiscent of that classic dish, without forcing the resemblance upon the diner. It adds its own touches to make it stand its ground on its own right, and stand out it did. And this is precisely where deconstruction, as a technique, triumphs.

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