At the end of 2012, barely a year into our relationship, Jonji and I travelled to India together. Long story short, his middle-and-high-school was affiliated with an ashram in Haridwar, and the woman who ran the ashram asked Jonji to come coach CrossFit for the kids (which they already did and loved) for a couple of weeks. Jonji invited me along, and so I found myself riding a train from Delhi to Haridwar at the end of December, a long ways from home, echoes of “chai, coffee!” drifting through the carriage at every stop.
I was didi to the kids, which translates essentially to older sister (which is what I found out when I mistakenly called a younger girl didi). The large, imposing square stone buildings, perfect for keeping in cool air during the heat of the summer but which felt like being in giant ice cubes in December, housed about 70 children at that time, ranging from infants to older teenagers. I can recall some of my memories of that trip in vibrant detail; drinking deliciously sweet brown chai out of metal cups every morning, the surrounding countryside blanketed in thick, bone-chilling fog, my breath coming out in furls of white; eating meals cross-legged on the floor in a line with all the children, while one girl explains, to my delight, that billee means cat; trying to roll roti in a perfect circle like the other girls, listening to them laugh gently at my consternation when I can’t; playing ultimate frisbee in the middle of a grove of trees, rust-colored dust puffing beneath racing feet; sneaking away with a few of the older kids to buy eggs from the market because they wanted so badly to get big and strong and needed the protein—each of them eating six hard-boiled eggs right there at the tiny market stand; Jonji and I riding on the back of one of the oldest teenager’s motorbike while a gigantic elephant loomed out of the gloom behind us, the road disappearing quickly beneath its huge strides as it plodded towards us, and that thrill in my stomach as I realized elephants are much more powerful than they are cute; being driven around in what felt like a tin can careening around other tin cans, horns honking ceaselessly. Ending the trip with a dance party under the stars with all the children, me dressed in a green sari, tiny mirrors on the fabric flashing and winking in the firelight.
And the food. Every meal was homemade by the cooks there, making paneer and yogurt fresh from the couple of cows they housed in a small stable at the rear of the property. There was one cauliflower curry that I looked forward to every few days, and the fresh roti with each meal was soft and warm. The chai was pure gold.
(That said, not all my food memories from India were great—when we finally travelled away from the ashram to visit the ancient city of Varanasi, we both ate something that sent us to the hospital and almost caused us to miss our flight. But, on the whole, my memories of food in India are fond.)
Given that I’m mostly Irish and I only visited India once, I’m no expert on Indian food. Mostly when I crave it we order from Zareen’s, a fantastic local Indian-Pakistani restaurant that I wish I could order from once a week—it’s that good. Since I’m no pro, when I cook Indian food I try to seek out the most authentic recipes. I salivated over all of Chetna Makan’s recipes when she was on the Great British Bake Off several years ago, so I’m not that surprised that her books have consistently given me fantastic results. This recipe is no exception; it’s insanely simple and chock-full of vibrant, healthy greens, and it’s fantastic next to daal, rice, yogurt, and cubed sweet potato roasted with coconut oil and salt. Boost your experience by adding in a sweet and sour pickle or chutney, or even homemade chapati. Paneer is basically like eating cheese for dinner, which I assume is a dream come true for anyone.
Kale Saag Paneer
Serves 4 | adapted from Healthy Indian by Chetna Makan
1 bunch dino (lacinato) kale
5 oz baby spinach
200ml (roughly 1 cup) boiling water
1 tbsp unsalted butter or ghee
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp kosher salt
8 oz paneer, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
Remove the stalks from the kale leaves and chop roughly, then rinse (ideally in a salad spinner). Clean your spinach leaves the same way.
Heat a large pan over medium-low heat. Add the kale and spinach followed by the 200ml boiling water, then cover and cook for about 5 minutes, until the greens are wilted. Transfer to a blender and blend until quite smooth.
Heat the 1 tbsp butter in the same pan over medium heat. Once it’s bubbling, add the garlic and sizzle for a minute, until fragrant. Pour the kale mixture into the pan and mix in the 2 tsp chili powder and 2 tsp kosher salt. Turn the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir in the diced paneer, cover, and cook for another few minutes, or until the paneer is warmed through. Taste for seasoning.
Serve hot with rice and daal, yogurt, a sweet and sour chutney, or chapati. Enjoy!