Sak – Divine Spinach

Sak (pronounced ‘shak’) is a very special vegetable dish. Literally the name can simply mean ‘spinach’. But in India, and especially in Bengal, where there are many dozens of varieties of green leafy vegetables, Sak is far from ordinary. It has a special place in temple kitchens and the home cooking repertoires of devotees of Krishna and his most recent incarnation, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

common garden spinach:

Sri Bhaktivinoda Thakur, esteemed 19th century Vaisnava saint and profuse author, writes in a song glorifying the relishing of food offered to Krishna before partaking (prasada):

heno sak-asvadane, krsna-prema aise mane,
sei preme koro asvadana
jada-buddhi pari-hari’, prasada bhojana kori’,
‘hari hari’ bolo sarva-jan

“O brothers! One day at Santipura, in Sri Advaita’s house, Lord Caitanya and Nityananda were seated at prasada. When Lord Caitanya tasted the green vegetables, He said, ‘My devotees, this sak is so delicious! Lord Krsna has definitely tasted it. At the taste of such sak as this, love of Krsna arises in the heart. In such love of God you should take this prasada. Giving up all materialistic conceptions and taking the Lord’s prasada, all of you just chant ‘Hari! Hari!'”

amaranth makes a nice sak:

Furthermore, Chaitanya Bhagavata, a much loved and respected Medieval devotional text composed in classical literary Bengali states:

“Mother Saci knows that Lord Caitanya is greatly satisfied with sak, therefore she cooked twenty different varieties. The vegetable known as sak is more fortunate that any other preparation, for the Lord eats it again and again. Slightly smiling the Lord takes His meal, speaking, the glories of sak to everyone.

The Lord says “this sak is called Acyuta, by eating the sak attraction for Krsna develops (at the time of eating, Lord Caitanya would call different kinds of sak different names of Krishna) by eating patala, bastuka and kala sak, one gains the association of the vaisnava’s life after life. If one eats salinca or helanca sak, he remain free from disease and gets devotion to Krishna”. (CB Antya 4.279, 293, 295, 298)

Yes I know this is rather elevated material, and I won’t hazard to speak much about it. Anyway, I received a letter recently which inspired me to share it with you, and the following recipe. It’s based on a recipe by Yamuna Devi from her award-winning and wonderful cookbook ‘Lord Krishna’s Cuisine’.

Ceylon climbing spinach:

Preethi from Hyderabad, India asks:

I would like to know how do we prepare Sak. I heard it’s a green leafy vegetable dish which Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu enjoyed eating. Is there any specific method of preparing? Would be grateful if you provided me with the recipe.

My reply:

Bengali Spinach (Sak)

Green leafy vegetables constitute the basis of a group of well-loved dishes in India known as sak. There are over 50 varieties of popular cooked greens in India, and, depending on regional cuisines, they can be flavoured with a variety of seasonings toasted in either ghee, mustard oil, sesame oil or peanut oil.

This lightly seasoned dish is based on a Bengali recipe that I first tasted in the holy city of Sridham Mayapur. The spinach is only lightly cooked, and the seasoning is subtle and unobtrusive to allow the full flavour of the greens to emerge.

Feel free to experiment by adding other greens – as long as no less than half of the greens are spinach – such as turnip, beet or radish greens, kale, collard, mustard greens, sorrel, or silverbeet (Swiss chard). Avoid cooking the greens in aluminium or cast-iron, since they tend to discolour and absorb flavours from the pan. Stainless steel, enamel or iron, or a non-stick surface is ideal. Enough for 6 very small side servings.

2kg spinach, about 2 large bunches, washed and chopped
1 tablespoon ghee
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon chopped and seeded green chilies
2 teaspoons freshly minced ginger
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg powder
2 teaspoons butter
1½ teaspoons lemon juice

Place the spinach in a 5-litre/quart saucepan over moderate heat. Sprinkle on a few drops of water. Place a lid on the pan and cook the spinach for about 5 minutes, or until it softens. Remove the spinach from the pan and squeeze off all the liquid. You may wish to reserve it for soup stocks.

Rinse the saucepan and dry it. Pour the ghee into the saucepan and place it over moderate heat. When hot, add the cumin seeds and fry them until they turn a shade or two darker. Sprinkle in the fenugreek seeds and fry them very briefly until they darken slightly. Add the chili and ginger, and stir them for half a minute, then add the very well drained spinach. Stir briefly, then add the sugar, salt, nutmeg, butter and lemon juice.

Cook the spinach for 1 or 2 minutes more, then remove from the heat and serve immediately.
Posted by Kurma on 2/10/07; 7:30:06 AM

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