They say we should muster up courage to use any spice that has volatile oils and that splutters when it hits the hot oil! Well, mustard seeds which we call rai in some regions or sarson in others is one little sparky seed that really splutters! These unassuming tiny seeds do a lot to food and once they crackle in the hot oil, the temper is ready to receive the rest of the ingredients! Rai or mustard seed is as acceptable in homes in western, eastern and southern Indian homes as salt!
Interestingly, mustard has been an important medicinal and culinary spice since classical times. In 33 BC, the powerful Persian general, Darius, sent a challenge to his Greek rival, Alexander the Great in the form of a sackful of sesame seeds – which represented the number of his troops. Alexander’s swift reply was a small sack of mustard seeds for, although less weighty, his soldiers were much more fiery! In earlier times, mustard seeds were chewed, possibly to disguise the flavour of decaying meat. The characteristic quality of mustard is its sharp, bright heat, an element that can be released simply by chewing the raw seed. This sensation is the result of a chemical reaction that occurs when the outer husk of the mustard seed is shattered and its cellular structure broken. With white mustard, the burning sensation is felt only on the tongue. With brown and black mustards, there is also a sense of vapourization that affects the eyes, nose and sinuses.
Mustard is as effective as chillies in stimulating the appetite, the digestion and in clearing the sinuses. And the western mustard sauce is a blend that provides a full range of sensations both on the tongue and in the eyes! If there is anything keen and hot, then it is mustard sauce that can enliven a sandwich or a salad. Spoon for spoon. If you are keenly watching the waist line, omit the mayonnaise from your life and get that jar of prepared mustard into the fridge.
That’s the power of mustard. To think that sarson da saag, the green parent of this seed, is the soul of Punjabi food, Punjabi food has little to do with rai as such in daily cooking, except for the pickles and the winter gajar kanji. If you have ever tasted the gajar kanji (it will be the season for that in a couple of months) you will know it is based entirely on the heat of crushed mustard that provides tremendous flavour for few calories and little fat. This season try and indulge in sarson ka saag. The recipe is easy and if you don’t have it, ask me for it. The saag itself contains no cholesterol (but we do add fat in the preparation!), and has between 25-32% protein. The green sarson leaves also contain calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and Vitamin B.
Sarson ka saag of Punjab is just one species of edible mustard plant. The seeds can also be used as a source for mustard oil, which is much used in Bengali and north Indian cooking, giving a characteristic yellow tinge to dishes. The aromas that arise from cooking with mustard oil are very pungent, but the hotness of the oil sweetens during the cooking process, and it gives an interesting base flavour to curries. Different kinds of mustard give different mustard oils: black mustard gives a highly pungent mustard oil, while white mustard gives a much less pungent mustard oil.