QUEEN'S ROAD: My memories of Lohri in Patiala are a bit hazy. But yes, winter was the season when beeji, my grandmother would painstakingly chop sarson ka saag and then cook it in a haandi on a mud angeethi. The prepared saag always topped with a dollop of homemade butter never ever saw the inside of a blender. It had a textured consistency that comes from hours of slow cooking. Every mouthful had the crunch of onion and ginger. It was slightly bitter but sweetened by a few chunks of seared tomato pieces and then eaten with a makki ki roti or steaming rice.
Lohri also meant an abundance of rewri and gajak. My favourite was chikki, the nutty gur delight that basically summed up the season’s abundance. The old women in mohalla must have coined the quip, “Aayee Lohri..pala hua Kohri” (When Lohri arrives, winter stumbles off like a leper) though I don’t know for sure. Lohri meant many things to the locals. A celebration of the winter solistice, the winter harvest of sugarcane and a regional interpretation of Makar Sankranti.
In the narrow streets of our mohalla, it was tough to find enough space where the Lohri bonfire could be lit. But we usually did it in the small square outside our house where a Sikh and a Hindu neighbourhood merged. Before the big bonfire moment, kids went from house to house singing..
Sundar mundariye ho...
Tera kaun bechaara ho...
What a thrill it was to receive a 25 paisa coin or a handful of sweets from generous neighbours after we were done singing the Lohri ditty. Then we piled up broken chairs, logs of wood, newspapers and more in that neat little square and lit it all up. As the fire crackled into life, we threw rewris and gajak pieces in, laughed, squealed as gold sparks cut loose and flew everywhere. In retrospect I do realise the significance of festive celebrations like this. When you honour nature’s abundance, bond over little community rituals, you stay connected to things that make life memorable and meaningful.
Isolation can make us lose sight of living fully in the moment. And lighting a bonfire has a cathartic impact on the human spirit. You just rid yourself of superfluities and make space for the gifts of spring.
Living in a big city has made me self-absorbed and inert but just one childhood memory can soften the edges and bring back the taste of the winter warming saag. The following recipe is created by my mother and like all home chefs, she cooks from memory and with instinct rather than measuring spoons.
So just go where this recipe takes you and tweak it according to your taste.
Ma ka saag
Chop the sarson ka saag and make sure that only the soft, succulent parts go in. Cook in very little water with a tea spoon of washed green moong daal, a pinch of soaked rice, salt, some coarsely chopped ginger, a few garlic cloves and an onion till the leaves are just done. Puree the mixture.
Then heat some oil and pop in the saag mixture and add a table spoon of makki ka atta in it.
Add just a little water if the mixture is sticky and keep stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes or till it smells perfect and you will know when it does.
In the north, a lot of people add other vegetables to the saag like finely chopped turnip etc.
For the tadka: Take any amount of pure ghee you are comfortable with, heat it, add some methi seeds, two or three red chillies, a little red pepper, garam masala, haldi if you want, sliced onion, five or six cloves of garlic, strands of ginger, two tomatoes chopped in big pieces and cook till it all smells divine and then pour it over the saag.
Perfect for a winter day and ready to go with buttered makki ki roti.