Is it Saag Paneer or Palak Paneer? Which one it is? ‘What’s in the name?’ you may ask! Well, everything! How will you feel if you are addressed differently from your own name? Aha… yes! Now we are talking… so why this partiality when it comes to food? After all as long as the food on plate is edible, we shouldn’t be much bothered about how it is called, right?
Wrong!!! At least I feel it is wrong. When you are cooking for your loved ones, it not only takes time and effort in creating a dish but you also sprinkle some love, and care into the final dish! After all it’s not just the salt, spices or herbs that makes or breaks a dish! When I cook I sprinkle little bit of pure love, a dash of passion, and a tadka of care which I learnt from my Amma! So when we take so much time, effort and put in so much of ourselves, why not take little time to know and understand why the dish is called so and so, where it comes from and what is the right way to make it? After all the information is on our finger tips…
So when I ‘Googled’, Guru Google came up with bunch of websites that had answer to my basic question! I went through every website and found that they had contradictory answers! My confusion grew further and I had sleepless night, tossing from one side to another, worrying about dying without knowing the difference between Saag Paneer and Palak Paneer! OK, I am kidding! But yes, I am one of those who can’t rest until I learn the reason/answer to some thought/question that the life throws at me now and then, just to test my sanity! So this question of difference between Saag Paneer and Palak Paneer was eating up my time and mind for most part of the day, and the answer at last came in the form of my friend whose mother is one of the finest Punjabi cooks! So do you want to know the answer to earth shattering question of what is the difference between Saag Paneer and Palak Paneer? ;)
Palak Paneer, served with freshly made soft Chapattis
According to Mrs. Amrit, Saag is a generic name for cooked and pureed green leafy vegetables like mustard greens (THE Sarson of famous Sarson ka Saag), spinach, fenugreek leaves, kale, spring greens, coriander and even mint leaves and Palak is just palak, ahem, spinach! Unlike the spinach leaves which takes just few minutes to wilt and cook, Saag takes much longer time as the greens usually have thick leaves and veins and takes long time to break when cooking. Mrs. A shared her fond memories her mother and aunts who would start the prep work a day before for making the creamy delicious Saag which was cooked on open wood fire!!! By early morning, the household would wake up to the heavenly aroma of Saag gently bubbling over slow fire to which the lady of the house would stir in a dollop of cream and love to be packed away in tall Tiffin boxes for the men of the family who needed all the nourishments and love to work in a large farm during cold winter days… I could just sit there sigh thinking about the taste of Saag, which was slow cooked overnight, a product of so much love, care and passion! A true labour of love shining through simple, home made dish!
Although many Indian restaurants and takeaways feature Saag Paneer on their menu, most often it is rather confusing for the customer as the base gravy has just spinach! Most often, Saag Paneer and Palak Paneer are used interchangeably, sometimes to mislead and most the times due to lack of knowledge! The taste of mustard greens in Saag is an acquired taste and not everyone will like the pungent and some what bitter taste of mustard greens which is heavily used in making Saag Paneer. And to mellow its taste, spinach is added along with bucketful of double cream and spice mixes which kind of hides the true star of the dish. So if you are making Saag Paneer, then do give the star ingredient, mustard green, a chance to shine and do not let it play a cameo role! And if only spinach is used, then it is simply Palak Paneer and not Saag Paneer! Consider yourself lucky if you ever get a chance to taste authentic Saag Paneer made by someone like Mrs. A who would stir the pot of Saag for hours instead of serving simple Palak Paneer which can be made with in half an hour! It is not everyday and everywhere that you get to taste real Saag Paneer and the taste of it lingers in your mind and soul for very long time!!! Sadly, as Mrs. A said, many well known restaurants who swear they serve authentic Indian cuisine, and also the celebrity chefs, often seen misguiding the food lovers by calling Palak Paneer a Saag Paneer and unfortunately, I too was misinformed for many years!
Little spicy and delicious ~ Palak Paneer
Now that I know the difference between Saag Paneer and Palak Paneer, thanks to Mrs. A, I now know not to name every dish that has just spinach in it as Saag! Although I don’t call myself connoisseur of Saag, I do now know my Saag Paneer from Palak Paneer. Today I am sharing Mrs. A’s recipe for Palak Paneer. I did make few changes to the recipe, mainly because I wanted to keep that fresh green colour of the spinach, this still is an authentic recipe Palak Paneer as it can get! Unlike the Palak Paneer you are served at the restaurant, which has creamy green gravy loaded with heavy cream, this recipe uses finely chopped spinach which adds texture to the gravy and doesn’t fall off from pieces of paneer when served. The aroma of whole spices used in Palak Paneer lingers long after one satisfied meal and the taste of melt in mouth paneer in thick spinach gravy that clings to it makes this one happy meal!
Updated: I found this comment left by Bawa very useful in understanding the difference between Palak Paneer and Saag Paneer. Bawa beautifully explains how Saag is cooked at her home by her mother and here is what she says
Saag in a Punjabi household (and my Mum is really renowned for her cooking among friends and family), usually refers to what you called Sarón da Saag. It is a mixture of Mustard greens, plus some Bathua leaves. My Mum buys her saag from a guy who comes the village in the afternoon from 4 onwards. He sells saag and bathua, both freshly picked that day. About 3 kgs of saag to 2 bunches of bathua leaves.
Saag is very tough, so yes, either slowly simmered or cooked in pressure cooker. One of my pet peeves in the internet is the way so many cooks give a paalak recipe for saag. There are 2 fundamental things with saag.
One, after it has been softened it is then mashed continuously while simmering with a "ghotna" and a certain amount of "makki da atta"- maize flour is added to it- slowly. That is what gives it a creamy texture and counterpoints the bitterness of the greens, but only slightly. This step is hard work and most people either skip it or just do it desultorily. But there is an expression in Punajbi that for hard work is called "saag ghotna" and it is not for nothing! You might do it with a potatoe masher if you do not have a ghotna handy.
The second thing is, you never ever add tomatoes to the saag tarka: it ruins the taste and makes it like any other green sabji.
After it has cooked at least half an hour with the makki the atta, and seasoned with salt. Now it is kept, in fact saag that is a couple of days old in the fridge is a lot tastier!
Then you take the quantity you want eat at that meal, and only put tarka on that one. Onions, green chillies, red chilli, ginger. Nothing else. And a dollop of white butter on the dish.
My mum serves it with ginger juliened and soaked in vinegar for a few hours. This saag of hers was in such demand that it was often sent to friends who lived long-distance (always without the tarka, which they would put themselves). And when it is made on a wood or coal fire it is even better (not usually possible!)
That is my experience of saag, hope you find it useful.
Fresh Baby Spinach for Palak Paneer
Soft and Crumbly Paneer/Indian Cottage Cheese
Fried to perfection ~ Paneer for Palak Paneer
Palak Paneer (Indian cottage cheese in spicy spinach paste)
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cooking Time: 20-25 mins
Recipe Level: Easy/Beginner
Spice Level: Low to Medium
Serves: 6-7 people
Recipe Source: Mrs. Amritji
Shelf Life: 3 days when refrigerated and up to a month when frozen
Serving Suggestion: With any Indian flat breads (Whole Wheat Naan or Butter Naan or with any stuffed parathas) or plain/flavoured Basmati rice
4-5 packed cups Spinach
1-1½ cups or 200 gms Paneer, cut into 1 inch long and 1 cm thick squares or triangles
2-3 Green Chillies, minced or finely chopped (Adjust acc to taste)
1 medium Onion, very finely chopped or grated
1 small Tomato, finely chopped
1 tsp Ginger-Garlic Paste
2 tbsp Fresh Cream or ¼ cup Whole Milk
1 tsp Sugar (Optional but recommended)
Juice of ½ fresh Lime (Adjust acc to taste)
1-2 tbsp Oil/Ghee
Salt to taste
1 inch Cinnamon
4 Green Cardamoms, lightly crushed
1 heaped tsp Dhania/Coriander Powder
½ tsp Jeera/Cumin Powder
½ tsp Garam Masala (Adjust acc to taste)
½ tsp Kitchen King Masala (Optional)
1 tbsp Kasuri Methi/Dried Fenugreek Leaves, crushed (Optional)
A pinch of Hing/Asafoetida (Optional)
Palak Paneer ~ Go Green!
- Bring the pot of water to boil and add about a tsp of sugar. Switch off the flame and add washed spinach leaves to them. Let it rest for one minute and drain all the water through colander. Bring the colander under running cold water to stop the spinach from cooking further. You can also steam cook the spinach for 2 minutes instead of blanching in hot water. Simply omit this step if you dont want to either steam or blanch the spinach.
- Next, based on your preference you can either finely chop or puree the spinach to smooth paste or simply grind it into rough paste by using food processor. I like to have little texture in Palak Paneer and hence I simply dumped the lot in food processor and pressed the pulse button few times to get rough spinach paste. Keep it aside until needed.
- Heat oil/ghee in a pan on medium flame and arrange paneer pieces in a single layer. Once they turns golden, about 1-2 mins, flip them over and cook the other side for another minute. Remove them from pan and either place them on a plate lined with kitchen towel or in a bowl of warm water which will help in keeping the paneer soft. This step is optional but recommended as it helps the paneer to hold its shape instead of crumbling when cooked in spinach gravy.
- In a same oil/ghee, add cinnamon, cloves and cardamoms. Fry them for half a minute.
- Next add hing and finely chopped onions and sauté on medium flame till they turn golden, about 3-5 minutes.
- Add ginger-garlic paste, minced green chillies, crushed kasuri methi and fry them for 3-4 mins until raw smell of ginger-garlic paste disappears.
- Add garam masala, kitchen king masala, coriander powder and cumin powder and stir them till the raw smell of the spices gives way to much harmonious and melodious aroma, about 1 minute. Add about table spoon of water if you think the spices are burning and sticking to the pan.
- Mix in chopped tomatoes and cook till they are pulpy and release their juice, about 2 minutes.
- Add the spinach, sugar and milk, little less than ¼ cups of water and mix them well. If using fresh cream instead of whole milk, add little less than ½ cup of water. Let them cook covered for about 5-6 minutes on medium flame. Add salt to taste and let it cook uncovered for another 3-5 minutes.
- Add paneer pieces and gently mix them so that the spices are evenly coated and let it simmer for 3 minutes before you switch off the flame.
- Drizzle freshly squeezed lime juice and serve this delicious Palak Paneer with any Indian flat breads (Whole Wheat Naan or Butter Naan or with any stuffed parathas) or plain/flavoured Basmati rice!
- If you prefer smooth spinach gravy, then simply grind the spinach to smooth puree by adding very little water at time.
- You can also blanch the spinach in boiling water with a tsp of sugar for about 3 minutes before pureeing. This will help in speeding the cooking process. Sugar helps in retaining the green colour of spinach.
- Take a look at Tofu Palak recipe where the spinach gravy is smooth and creamy. Paneer lovers can replace the tofu with paneer.
- Vegans can replace Paneer with Tofu and cow's milk with almond/soya milk.