The other weekend I was supposed to be allowing myself “the space to dare, dream and imagine” in a “global catalyst”, at “the largest free literary festival on earth”. Unfortunately, a minor domestic crisis mid-week left my plans to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival in tatters. While nearly everyone I knew was jostling for standing room to see V.S. Naipaul (but secretly wondering if it was too early to slope off for a bit of Rajasthani retail therapy), I was staring at a lot of “me” time in Delhi. Hey ho.
I decided to put the time to good use and focus on the really important things in life: actually reading some of the books of the authors I had been intending to see; skyping with my children; and eating my greens. Specifically, I decided to get better acquainted with north India’s incredible range of leafy green vegetables.
My organic delivery service obliged with mountains of bathua, sarson and methi which, of course, are the main components of the much loved winter comfort dish, Sarson da Saag. Sarson, I know, is mustard leaf, methi is fenugreek, but I was less sure of bathua.
A little light Internet research revealed that Chenopodium album, to give it the correct botanical name, is a bit like wild spinach. In fact, it’s so wild that in some parts of the world (UK being one), it is regarded as a nasty weed and given names like lamb’s quarters, goosefoot or even dungweed. Although with the new trend for foraged food, this is changing, and some corners of the Internet are awash with recipes for goosefoot turkey burger and lamb’s quarters tacos.
Digging deeper into dusty tomes, I discovered the seeds of the bathua plant can be ground to produce a buckwheat-like flour for making “black muffins”. It was once beloved of that well-known forager, Napoleon Bonaparte—if his memoirs are to be believed, at times the tiny tyrant survived on little else. I toyed with the idea of using my green bounty to make Horta, a delicious Greek side dish of wild leaves cooked slowly and dressed with olive oil and lemon. Or perhaps Middle-Eastern Kuku and Eggah, or yogurt soups. Nearer home, I wondered about pesto or bathua and ricotta tortelloni. In the end, I started with a bathua brunch of Parsi-style braised greens with eggs, and thoroughly satisfying, if solitary, it was too.
A baking recipe for my Mint Lounge column was more tricky—it’s a bit of a stretch to squeeze Indian greens into a baking column, but eventually I hit on pancakes. Pancakes are not, strictly speaking, baked as they don’t go anywhere near an oven, but I always think of them as stove-top baking. I decided to make the mustard leaves the star ingredient (the added wholegrain mustard enhanced them beautifully), but I think bathua would have worked just as well.
For me they were a fine boredom-beating, mid-afternoon snack, but they would also make an elegant starter. I may not have hobnobbed with Naipaul last weekend but I did read a lot, snatched a few conversations with my children and ate a lot of greens—and it worked out a lot cheaper than Jaipuri semi-precious jewellery.
Mustard leaf pancakes with yogurt dressing
150g mustard leaves
100g all-purpose flour (maida)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp grain mustard
2 spring onions, finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 egg white
A little sunflower oil for frying
For the yogurt sauce
1-2 green chillies, finely chopped
A handful of fresh coriander, finely chopped
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
First, make the yogurt sauce by whipping together all the ingredients. Leave aside until you’re ready to serve the pancakes.
Remove the stalks and clean the mustard leaves thoroughly. Put them in a large pan, cover with a lid and heat over a medium flame until the leaves have wilted completely. Drain the leaves into a colander and, when they’re cool enough, squeeze out the water, then chop finely. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, salt and turmeric powder. Then stir in the cooked, chopped mustard leaves, grain mustard, spring onions, egg and milk. Mix gently until everything is well combined. In another bowl, whisk the egg white until stiff peaks form, then gently stir this into the mustardy pancake batter. Heat the sunflower oil in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat, then drop heaped tablespoons of the mustard leaf batter, widely spaced, into the pan. When the underside of the pancake is browned, flip it over and brown the other side. Serve hot with a dollop of yogurt sauce.