There’s more to laal math than meets the eye, say Mumbai chefs

For Oshiwara-based home chef Nandini Deb, amaranth leaves or laal saag, as it is popularly known in Bengali, has a special place in her family and home. “Every day, somebody from my family is making saag in some way,” she says. Even on the day this writer spoke to Deb, her mother, whom the 30-year-old had talked to earlier in the day on the phone, told her she had made laal saag at their home in Kolkata. For the last two years in Mumbai, Deb has been running a delivery kitchen called Bangali Babu, together with her fiancé Nirban Goswami, that dishes out authentic Bengali cuisine. The traditional Bengali thali on her menu includes saag because “the experience is incomplete without it”. 

Amaranth leaves or laal math, as the name goes in Maharashtra, are currently in season and spotted across vegetable stalls in the city. Lurking among the different shades of green leafy vegetables, its maroon hue is hard to miss. Three chefs vouch for the leaves, which although used in several Indian cuisines are not as widely accepted as should be the case. Laal math just needs to be made right, they say. 

Nandini Deb says laal saag is used to make a variety of dishes in Bengali cuisine including laal saag bhaja, stir-fried laal saag and more. Photo: istock

Experimenting with versatility 
Deb, who believes the ingredient is actually quite versatile, shares that laal saag is one of the most common saags in any Bengali household and is prominently used as a side-dish. “We usually have it with our meal with dal and saag on the side. It is made as a laal saag bhaja (amaranth leaves fritters), stir-fried laal saag made with ginger and garlic eaten during the winters to beat cold and cough.” Apart from that, laal saag is also eaten with chingri bhapa (prawns), begun (brinjal), potatoes and posto (poppy seeds). She also feels that has become a part of the cuisine because of its all-in-one nutritional value, unlike other saags. “The taste is not bitter and is actually milder than other saags. So, when it is tossed in garlic or ghee, it tastes divine,” adds the home chef.   

Believing in its true potential, the newly-opened Sante Spa Cuisine in Khar makes use of the vegetable in its dishes. It is not used in the background but is in fact the star of the dish called Amaranth Beet and Cherry Tomato Tart, which is served with mustard, home-made labneh, muhammara, black olives and basil. Chef Shailendra Kekade remembers being fed the vegetable as a child and has even grown to like it over the years. He explains, “I kind of like the earthiness of the flavours and it has a very peculiar crunch to the leaves.”

While it may seem like his childhood memories made him make a dish out of the vegetable at the restaurant, he says it is otherwise. “The ability to experiment with anything rather goes with experience on using ingredients over a period of time and understanding how they complement each other or provide a contrast,” he adds. It is also why the city-based chef uses a braised form of the red leafy vegetable, not only for the texture it gives the dish but also its nutritional value, like Deb mentioned.  

The availability of the ingredient in the market is also what prompted the chef to use it. The fact that it is not a popular ingredient easily available at city restaurants, feels Kekade, is because people have this common misconception that it cannot be used in an aspirational manner. The dish created by him proves otherwise. While it is an attempt to celebrate the amaranth leaves, he says it was also a learning experience for him to see how well it combines with different ingredients. “The unique aspect about the leaves is that they are crunchy, there is a slight bitterness and they don’t disintegrate like the other leafy greens,” informs Kekade. 

Nandini Deb (left) and Jasleen Marwah (right) believe a lot more can be done with laal math because of the way it can be cooked and portrayed. Photo: Nandini Deb/Jasleen Marwah

Seeing art in laal math 
Goregaon-based home chef Jasleen Marwah, who hails from Srinagar, says the ingredient, known as vasta haak in Kashmir, is one of the popular greens the Kashmiris eat too. Unlike the way it is used in Bengali cuisine, the 40-year-old says they make it in a simple manner in only one or two styles. “The first one is putting it in a pressure cooker and cooking it very mildly in mustard oil with hing (asafoetida), green chilies, Kashmiri red chilies and salt. It is the simplest and most common way of cooking any green there. This is soupy and steamed.” The other one, she says, is open-cooked the same way with Kashmiri red chillies, saunf (fennel seed powder) and dry ginger powder. The dish with the winter ingredient is among the hotter greens, as she knows it, and is cooked till the entire water evaporates, after which egg, paneer or lotus stem is added to it.    

While that is traditional Kashmiri cooking, ever since she moved to Mumbai 18 years ago, she hasn’t adjusted to the taste of the same greens available here. Marwah says they taste different and that has convinced her to not put a dish with it on the menu just yet. With the different flavour, it simply wouldn’t do justice to the experience, which she truly believes in, of authentic Kashmiri food.

In mid-2020, the Mumbaikar, who started out as a home chef earlier, started her delivery kitchen called Namak Swad Anusaar, which she operates out of Andheri. Interestingly, their delivery kitchen Instagram account also indicates that she clearly loves her greens and even put out a winter menu with them on it. Ask her if she thinks the winter ingredient is as popular as other leafy greens at restaurants in Mumbai and she admits to having seen it at a quite a few restaurants over the years. These are apart from the smaller ones, which may serve a dish made out of the vegetable, in thalis.

Marwah, like Deb, believes more should be done with amaranth leaves, especially because of the different ways it can be cooked and portrayed. Even more so, if popular restaurants serving modern Indian cuisine want to experiment with it.  For the ones hesitant to work with it, she explains, “While I aim to provide an authentic experience, I think restaurants who experiment are interpreting ingredients and they don’t need to stick to a traditional recipe. So, they can always use the colour to their advantage as a soup puree or filling, or use the texture by steaming the leaves and making a complete side, wherever you use other greens.” 

While she has tried to work with the ingredient in the past and hasn’t been impressed with it, Marwah ponders about how she wants to revisit her use of vasta haak by experimenting with it. For starters, she may just cook it with a meat but whether it comes on her menu, remains to be seen. Till then, she is going to enjoy it in the comfort of her home and make the most of it.  

Kashmiri stir-fried vasta haak by Jasleen Marwah
Vasta haak (cleaned, torn roughly with hands or chopped not so finely) – 2-3 bundles, mustard oil – 5 tbsp (can use less but in this recipe use more than usual), hing – 1/4 tsp, Kashmiri red chilli powder- 1-2 tsp, saunf powder – 1 tsp, ginger powder – 1/4 tsp, salt to taste.
1. Smoke mustard oil and after cooking it down, on low flame, add the hing.
2. Add the saag.
3. Add salt.
4. Let it wilt.
5. Add the red chilli powder and saunf.
6. Mix it well and let it cook in its own juices.
7. Cover with a lid for 5 to 7 minutes.
8. You can cook it upto a point where you can see the oil separating from the saag or you can leave it a bit moist. The saag cooks really quickly.
9. Can add potatoes, fried paneer, pan-fried boiled egg or even scrambled egg to the saag.
10. In Kashmir, we deep fry the paneer and then add it to dishes. Even eggs are pan-fried or even deep fried to a golden brown. If you have the ver tikki masala, add 1/4 tsp of that dissolved in water to give a unique punch to the dish.

Amaranth beet and cherry tomato tart by Chef Shailendra Kekade
Ingredients (Serves 4):
For the filling
Amaranth leaves – 200 gms, cherry tomatoes – 25 gms, red capsicum – 40 gms, basil – 10 gms, black olives – 20 gms, labneh – 20 gms.
For Muhammara
Walnuts – 30 gms, roasted capsicums 50 gms, olive oil – 20 gms, cumin seeds – 5 gms.
For the tart
Buckwheat flour – 250 gms, Milk/soy milk – 35 ml, Butter/vegan butter – 75 gms.
1. Make a basic tart shell from the dough by mixing the buckwheat flour, milk and butter.
2. Then make the muhammara sauce with roasted capsicums, walnuts, red chillies, salt, olive oil and roasted cumin seeds.
3. Put the sauce on the base of the tart.
4. Sautee the braised amaranth leaves in garlic, cherry tomatoes, white wine and red capsicum, basil and black olives and let the juices in the pan dry up.
5. After it is ready, fill the amaranth mixture in the tart shell.
6. Once the mixture in, add small portions of labneh to the tart, mustard sauce for dressing.
7. Once it is done, bake the tart for 8-10 minutes at 160 degrees Celsius for a 1-inch tart shell.
8. Serve it whole or cut it into pieces as preferable.  

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