I am excited to introduce you to one of the most iconic yet humble dishes from my homeland. Sai Bhaji, which literally translates to green vegetable, is an age-old Sindhi lentil and vegetable stew. Sindh is a little-known province now in Pakistan where my parents grew up pre-partition. I have fond childhood memories of eating sai bhaji with rice for dinner when my mother had challenging days, or when we came back from a long road trip. Like most vegetable dishes in India, it was cooked for hours on end with the fragrance of cumin and fennel wafting through our home, until the lentils and vegetables came together. Sai bhaji is popular because of its ease of preparation — it’s a one-pot dish — in addition to its nutritional value because of the various green vegetables. During the summer, it can be made with tomatoes; in the winter, with lots of root vegetables. If using tomatoes, make sure to add them at the end or the acid in the tomatoes will slow down the lentils from cooking. Add the greens at very the end for maximum color and vitality.
makes ~6 servings
1 cup chana dal (see note)
1 bulb fennel (with fronds)
1 medium yellow beet
1 large carrot, grated
1 cup onion, minced
2 tablespoons ghee (see note)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1-2 cinnamon sticks, large
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons ginger, grated
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 bunch (or 4 cups) spinach, washed and chopped
2 cups kale, chopped (optional)
Soak the chana dal in water (enough to cover the top by 4 inches) for about an hour. Drain. While the lentils soak, mince the bulb of the fennel and separate the stems and fronds at the top; chop and reserve the fronds for garnish. Peel and chop the yellow beet into ¼-inch pieces. Peel and grate the carrot and mince the onion.
In a large stockpot, heat up the ghee and add the cumin seeds. Let them pop and sizzle for a few seconds then add the onion, beet, minced fennel bulb, carrot, cinnamon sticks, turmeric, ginger and salt. Cook the vegetables on medium-high heat for 5-8 minutes until they have sweated and are translucent.
Add the drained chana dal and 4 cups of water. Bring the mixture to a boil then lower the heat and cover the stockpot. Let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, checking on it periodically to add more water if it appears dry. Keep cooking the mixture until the lentils and vegetables are tender.
Remove the cinnamon stick. Using the back of a spoon, mash the vegetables and lentils together for a creamier consistency. Add the spinach and kale (if using), and cook for another minute or two — just until the greens are wilted.
Squeeze lemon juice, garnish with the chopped fennel fronds (about ½-1 cup) and drizzle more ghee on top if desired just before serving.
ideas / variations
Chana dal can be replaced with split yellow lentils or with most other bean and lentils.
If you don’t have ghee, another far, such as olive or coconut oil, would work.
Replace spinach and kale with mustard or collard greens. Watercress is also delicious if added at the end.
If you don’t love beets, leave them out. They are not essential to this recipe — fennel is, however.
This recipe allows almost any vegetable including butternut squash, eggplant or zucchini.