Prasadam - Spinach


Aug 11, 2016 — CANADA (SUN) — A journey through India: border to border, bhoga to prasadam.

Spinach (spinacia oleracea) is thought to have originated somewhere in western Asia, although exactly where isn't known. Called by many names – palak, palong, sag, saka or shaka, we find mention of spinach many places in sastra, where it's described as an excellent foodstuff. Early Arabian physicians mentioned spinach as a medicinal plant in their writings. There are records from around 1350 A.D. saying that European monks ate spinach on fasting days. In India, the opposite is true, as spinach is not taken on various Ekadasi and fasting days.

In the Bhavisya Purana we read:

    "One who passes the Caturmasya season without observing religious vows, austerities and chanting of japa, such a fool although living should be considered to be a dead man."

If one is unable to follow the full Ekadasi regiment, which is very austere, then it's recommended to at least maintain the basic regulations, which include fasting from green leafy vegetables, including spinach, during Sravana (one month in July/August).

Spinach has long been cultivated as an annual plant, easily recognized by its broad green leaves, which may be rounded or pointed, depending on the variety. The round-leafed varieties are generally the best tasting, and they grow most quickly and abundantly. The flowers of some varieties are also eaten, e.g., Strawberry Spinach, which produces bright red flower heads that are quite delicious.

Wild Spinach

Wild Spinach was famously gathered and eaten by Lord Caitanya during His sankirtan travels through the Jharakhand Forest. The wild variety is also known by many names around the world, and it grows in many locales. It can be found in forest clearings, along shaded edges, and in loamy soils. The stalks grow about a foot and a half high, making them easy to see and harvest. Wild spinach has a thick, striated stem, and a whitish powder is often found on both sides of the arrow-shaped leaves. The young leaves are tender and tasty, and the stems can be eaten like asparagus.

In Sri Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya lila we read about wild spnach, or 'spinach of the forest':

    Madhya 4.70:

    vanya saka-phala-mule vividha vyanjana
    keha bada-badi-kadi kare vipra-gana

    vanya saka -- spinach of the forest; phala -- fruits; mule -- with roots; vividha -- varieties; vyanjana -- vegetables; keha -- someone; bada-badi -- bada and badi; kadi -- from the pulp of dhal; kare -- made; vipra-gana -- all the brahmanas.

    "The vegetable preparations were made from various kinds of spinach, roots and fruits collected from the forest, and someone had made bada and badi by mashing dhal. In this way the brahmanas prepared all kinds of food."

Bastuka (or vastuka) shaka, another name for wild spinach, is a green leafy herb that's known as bathua in Hindi, or as lamb's quarters. It is a wonderful dish alone, or combined with common spinach.

In his book, "Art of Sadhana", Srila Bhakti Promode Puri Maharaja states that of all the varieties of spinach, bastuka (vastuka) shaka was particularly relished by Lord Caitanya. He refers to this verse from a song by HDG Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur:

    gaura priya saka sevane jivana sarthaka mani

    "I consider my life perfect when I eat the spinach which was so dear to Gaura."

And this:

    sukta sakadi bhaji nalita kusmanda

    "Yasoda serves sukta, various kinds of spinach, deep fried vegetables, jute spinach, and pumpkin"

Here is a recipe for a traditional Bengali spinach preparation the devotees refer to as Jharkhanda, in honor of Lord Caitanya's pastimes in the Jharka forests:

Sak Charcari (Jharkhanda)


    Spinach, 4 heads
    Parsley, fresh leafy, 1 bunch
    Tender greens (see below), 3 handfuls
    Ghee, 2 Tblsp
    Mustard seeds, 1 tsp
    Nigella seeds, 1 tsp
    Coriander powder, 1 tsp
    Black pepper, to taste
    Nutmeg, a few grates

Collect the nicest possible blend of wild greens to mix with the spinach. Greens that might have been enjoyed by Caitanya Mahaprabhu in Jharkhanda include tender mustard leaves, dandelion, taro leaves, or sorrel. Mix the spinach and greens together and put in a steamer basket. Steam until just soft, but still retaining some shape (not too mushy). Remove and drain as much liquid as possible without crushing the greens. At the same time, heat a little ghee and fry the mustard, nigella and coriander. When the mustard seeds have popped, toss the greens in and coat thoroughly. Put the lid on quickly, turn the heat down low, and let it cook for 10 minutes. Keep a close eye, and watch as the very last of the liquid reduces and becomes a 'skin' on the pan bottom. Just before it burns, scrape up the last of the wetness in the bottom of pan and mix it into the greens. Offer immediately with a sprinkle of black pepper and a few grates of nutmeg.

In the Govinda-lilamrta, Rasa-tarangini Tika, 88-109, Rohini Devi narrates the many wonderful preparations Radharani has made for Krsna, among which spinach is a favored foodstuff:

    "Just see the different kinds of saka (spinach) that Radha prepared. Here is nabita shaka, methi shaka, satpuppi shaka, mishi shaka, potola shaka, bastuka shaka, bitunna shaka and marisa shaka—their taste all defeat the pride of nectar. Ripe tamarind rasa and unripe mangoes were added to kalmi-shaka and dark nalita-shaka to make a delicious sour shaka preparation."

Although not commonly used, the Sanskrit terms above describe a wide range of green leafy edibles that are generally categorized as 'spinach'. Not all are the same as the vegetable commonly called spinach in the west. For example, the dark nabita (nalita) shaka, and nalita-shaka mixed with tamarind and green mango are preparations made with a 'spinach' that is actually the leaves of hemp or jute plants.

Methi shaka is made from fenugreek (methi) leaves, which are a tart leafy green that's often cooked along with regular spinach. Mishi shaka is a preparation made with cabbage leaves. Bastuka (or vastuka) shaka is wild forest spinach.

The Sanskrit term saka is sometimes used to refer to green leafy plants that have a negative effect on eyesight or bodily strength, or more generally, any type of vegetable that is not good for one's health. When we consider the wide range of green leafies that are called saka or shaka, we can understand that many such plants might not be considered good edibles.

Among the other preparations described by Rohini Devi, some combine spinach (of some variety) with other ingredients. For example, potola shaka is made with spinach and parwal (pointed gourd), while kalmi-shaka is a mixture of spinach and mung beans. Radharani offered Krsna a bitter version of this dish, adding tamarind and green mango to the saka and mung.

Methi Shaka Roti


    9 ounces Maize (flour)
    1 cup chopped Spinach
    1/2 cup chopped Methi (fenugreek leaves) bhaji
    3 fresh Green Chilis
    1/2 tsp Chili powder
    1/2 tsp Salt
    Ghee for frying

Mix the maize, spinach, fenugreek leaves, chili powder, green chilies and salt. Add hot water and make a soft dough. Divide the dough into equal portions. Spread a damp cloth on a wooden board and flatten into the form of a chapati until thin. Lift from the cloth with wet hands and put the roti upside down on a tava or griddle. Cook on both sides, using a little ghee.

Dal Pakora


    1/2 cup Moong dal
    1 cup Channa dal
    1/2 cup Masoor dal
    1/4 cup Urad dal
    1/4 cup Toor dal
    2 Tblsp Coriander seeds
    2 Tblsp Cumin seeds
    2 inches Ginger, fresh
    1 tsp Asofoetida
    1/2 cup fresh Spinach, chopped
    3-4 Green Chillies
    Salt to taste
    Pinch of Baking Soda
    Ghee for deep frying

Wash the dals and soak them separately. Make a smooth paste of the ginger, green chilies, coriander seeds and cumin seeds, then grind the soaked dals into a coarse paste. Combine the two mixtures by hand into a smooth paste, adding salt and A pinch of baking soda. Add the chopped spinach and mix well. Heat ghee in A pan. Make small balls or drop the batter with a small spoon into the hot ghee, and fry till light brown. Offer hot.

Sag Pulav


    3 cups Basmati rice
    2 bunches Spinach
    3 Tblsp Butter
    2 Cloves, whole
    2 green Cardamoms
    1 inch Cinnamon stick
    1 tsp Ginger paste
    1 tsp Red chili powder
    Salt to taste

Cook the rice and set aside. Wash the spinach and cook until soft. Allow it to cool then squeeze all the liquid out. Grind it to a fine paste, and set aside. Heat the butter in a pan, adding the cloves, cinnamon, cardamoms and peppercorns, and fry for 2-3 minutes on medium flame. Add the ginger paste and red chili powder, and fry, stirring, for 2 minutes. Last, add the spinach paste and salt and mix thoroughly. Add the cooked rice to this seasoned mixture, and offer.

Lambs Quarters (wild spinach)


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