Always a dal moment

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on June 29, 2018

Some like it this way: The Gujarati version of the dal blends sweet and sour flavours   -  M SUBHASH

The Great Indian Comfort Food is packed with proteins and history

We were in the last leg of a press trip to the Philippines. Through the week, the six of us had enjoyed coconut water, crêpes and unusual desserts. Two were non-vegetarian and sampled the extravagant roasts and stews. The others were vegetarian and managed on dishes cobbled together by obliging chefs.

Then we hit Manila. The flight was late. None of us wanted to eat — but the hotel staff informed us that our meal was waiting. So we plonked down in the restaurant and gaped as a parade of kebabs, tikkis, paneer, prawn curry, mutton rogan josh and naan.

This was not four-in-the-evening-after-a-day-snacking-on-airport-junk meal. We nibbled politely — till the dal rice arrived.

Suddenly, the politeness disappeared. We got down to business. We leaned across the table, heaped our plates with rice and dal, and tucked in. The Odia chef who had organised the meal beamed. “I thought you would be missing your dal rice,” he said.

It was a moment of revelation. A sudden understanding about the role that dal-chawal plays in the life of a non-dal-chawal lover. A suspicion that maybe Madhur Jaffrey knows me better than I know myself when she writes that you can take meats and fish and vegetables from an Indian, but you cannot take away his dal — “the core of his meal”.

I’ve never thought of dal as the core of my meal. I’ve always viewed it as a rather stodgy dish packed with proteins. I’ve always goggled when British and American columnists wax eloquent about this “velvety comfort food”. I’ve always felt it was a passable accompaniment for a really punchy pickle. Period.

As children, my brother and I pleaded with our father to transform our mother’s virtuous dal into “dal fry”. Often, he obliged. He marched into the kitchen, roughly chopped an onion and a couple of tomatoes. Then emptied the butter pot into a pan and fried the vegetables with a couple of chillies and garlic. Then added the dal to the sizzling mix and fried that as well. After which he tossed in more butter, a couple of tablespoons of mango pickle, a splash of vinegar, maybe a spoonful of kachumber.

The outcome was entirely unhealthy as well as delicious.

Years later, when I was a student in LA, my roommate and I made depressing quantities of dal. So I wrote to my father, asking for his secret formula. A month later I received a scrawl on a torn scrap of paper.

“Make mummy’s dal. Add butter, pickle, vinegar, chillies. Anything else you feel like.”

We made this till our pickle ran out.

Even today, dal is the menu of last resort in my house — dinner on days when I don’t have time to attempt a Korean sticky chicken that’s popped up in my email; when we’ve overdone the veg pulao and pasta; when I just can’t think of anything else.

So you can sympathise with my surprise in Manila. Overnight I’d become a dal lover. Only, nobody sent me the SMS alert.

I guess I should have anticipated this turnaround. Indians are the world’s biggest producers and consumers of lentils, which was a staple food even during the Indus Valley Civilisation. In Indian Food: A Historical Companion, food historian KT Achaya writes that pulses such as maash (urad), mansura (masoor) and mudga (moong) are mentioned in the Yajur Veda. And it’s generally believed that Ram enjoyed a dish called kosumalli, consisting of soaked dal, diced cucumber, a sprinkle of coconut — all tossed in lemon juice.

In medieval India, chana dal was a popular item on the royal menu. After she married Akbar, Jodha Bai’s kitchen provided food for the court on Thursdays and often served panchmel dal, made from five pulses. During Shah Jahan’s reign, an elaborate shahi panchmel dal was a hot favourite.

Shah Jahan’s third son, Murad Baksh, was also a dal buff. One of his cooks experimented with moong dal on a slow flame for about five hours. He topped the velvety concoction with aamchur, onion and green chilli — and created the famous Mordabadi dal that the prince snacked on thrice a day. The chaat is still a speciality in Moradabad.

Meanwhile, dal was acquiring different textures, and masalas, in humbler corners of the country. Hobson Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary described dhall or doll as “a kind of pulse much used in India, both by natives as a kind of porridge and by Europeans as an ingredient in Kedgeree”.

To dismiss it as a kind of porridge was, however, a grave injustice to the dal. The Gujaratis had developed a delicate version with a sweet-sour flavour. The Bengalis came up with variations — including a dal tempered with the paanch phoron spice mix and another cooked with fish head. The Hyderabadis and Bohras added mutton to make a lip-smacking dal gosht. While the Parsis added mutton, vegetables and a distinctive masala to their dhansaak.

Traditional Punjabi dal was jazzed up by the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi after the Partition. The famous Kundan Lal Gujral had already created a tomato and cream sauce for his murgh makhani, He created a similar base for the traditional black dal of his childhood, and came up with dal makhani.

All of which means that — now that I’ve discovered my inner-dal-loving-self — I have a lot of exploring and tasting to do.



Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw

Published on June 29, 2018

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