Presented by Infiniti.
Sai bhaji, a kind of velvety mash made with chana dal, fresh greens, and vegetables, is the perfect baby food, my mother explained, as she prepared it for my infant daughter. “Soft, nutritious, filling,” she said. I was living in Singapore then, and my parents were visiting to spend time with their first grandchild.
I hadn’t had sai bhaji in years. My mother, and my grandmothers before her, served this traditional Sindhi dish—a tangy, dal-flecked vegetable curry—in their kitchens. It represented familiarity and comfort, but it wasn’t my favorite. I dutifully ate it well into my teens, but turned away from it and other traditional foods as soon as I left home for college. Then came graduate school, many jobs, a marriage, several apartments, and an international move for said marriage. My palate changed—new friends and far-flung travel introduced me to novel flavors—and I didn’t care much for cooking. Sai bhaji is ghar jo khado, home food; it wasn’t found on the take-out menus I was using to feed myself.
In Sindhi, sai means “green”; bhaji, “vegetables.” Our family recipe calls for potatoes and carrots, but my mother deftly substituted those for the Southeast Asian sweet potatoes, long beans, and bottle gourd more commonly found in our Singapore refrigerator. This is the beauty of sai bhaji: “Flexible, practical,” she said, shopping away in my humid, tropical kitchen.
The dish’s earthy, herby aroma filled the room, stirring up distant memories that overwhelmed me. My paternal grandmother served hearty, homey Sindhi fare in our New Jersey kitchen at every meal: slow-cooked lamb curry on Thursdays; shad, the North American cousin of palla, a river fish found in the Indus, on Saturdays; seyal dubroti, stale bread sautéed in a tomato-onion-ginger-garlic masala, on Sundays; and, always, sai bhaji on Mondays.
And now my mother was cooking for me, a new mother, in Asia. My marriage was irrevocably broken, but I hadn’t yet admitted that to myself or anyone else. I wanted to say something to my mother, a hint that I was unhappy, but the words would not come out. I leaned over and tasted my mother’s riff for salt and heat. That spoonful of sai bhaji warmed me in a way I didn’t even know I needed.
Later that evening, my daughter happily ate a bowlful. I was surprised; sai bhaji is both sour and nutty, a mix of flavors that I hadn’t liked as a child; I assumed she wouldn’t like them either. My mother was thrilled. My daughter gestured for more. From then on, our domestic worker—to whom my mother gave her recipe before she returned to the States—would make sai bhaji, rice, and yogurt weekly. It became a fixture on Mondays again.
Sai bhaji is synonymous with the Sindhi cuisine, which is little known, even among those from South Asia. To some, it defies categorization. The cuisine originates in the southeast corner of Pakistan, and has varied influences—Persian, Arab, Central Asian. It emphasizes contrasting textures and flavors: creamy and crunchy, or warmly savory and unexpectedly tart. The dishes are deeply rooted in the geographies, climates, and seasons of Sindh, yet binds millions from the diaspora, many of whom have no physical connection to its lands.