“Ghar ki murgi, dal barabar!” A Hindi idiomatic phrase that roughly translates to ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. And nothing holds truer to this than the ubiquitous yellow lentil or dal in Indian cooking.
The humble dal… I call it ‘humble’ because of more reasons than one. From ancient Indian emperors to religious texts such as the Rig Veda, all refer to the lentil dish eaten in most Indian households today. It can be transformed into elevated cuisine or had as a daily staple, be it the rich or the poor. There is no inherent arrogance to its existence, which is probably why it has stood the test of thousands of years.
My family and the many dals…
I grew up in a middle class household where every gender had a defined role and from the outside my family looked like an average Indian family with traditional values. But, whereas if you used a micro lens, we were the opposite.
Being the younger of two kids in the family, I was often spoilt for choice between the many kinds of dal recipes from the states of India. That's what a multicultural upbringing did for me, it developed my language skills and took my taste buds to a whole different culinary level. My Dad worked with a logistics company with countrywide branches, so we moved houses every three years.
My initial years were spent in Tamil Nadu, where I loved eating the staple sambar (lentils stewed with vegetables and traditional spices) with rice and papadums for a quick, healthy meal after school. Moving a few 100 miles away to the neighbouring state of Karnataka, the sambar became a little sweeter than tangy, with jaggery becoming an important ingredient. In fact, there are over 30 recipes for sambar itself… a personal favourite is the vengaya sambar or sambar with seared shallots and clarified butter.
As my journey continued, I lived in - Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Gujarat. Everywhere I went, I found dal, in different forms, colours and tempering but always by my side. In sickness and in health, dal was there. My constant companion.
The past and present – the twain meet
India’s culinary tradition spanning 5,000 years is a mix of indigenous cultures, invasions and empires. Recently, while watching a television re-run of the Indian epic Mahabharata during the many dull days of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, I learnt that one of the main protagonists, the exiled Pandava prince Bhima, cooked a mix of five lentils, when he was serving a king disguised as a chef. The dish is known as Dal Panchmel or Five-mix lentil curry today.
Mentions of dal were found in Buddhist literature dating back to 400 BC and archeologists found references to urad and moong dal in the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BC), as per Indian Food - A historical companion by K.T. Achaya.
It all began over a bowl of lentils
I had a friend, who when my family was based in Coimbatore, loved coming over to my house to play. Little did I know that she would time her visit to when mum would be preparing lunch and the pressure cooker whistle was her cue to turn up.
Tadka or tempering is region specific in Indian cuisine, there are no generic recipes. Being a native of Bihar, mum widely uses jeera or cumin and methi or fenugreek seeds to temper dal.
Fifteen years later when my not so little childhood friend visited us in Delhi, she sat for dinner and requested mum to serve her only dal. And with every spoonful she ate, her face gleamed with joy. She sighed! She had sorely missed our kitchen aroma and my mum’s dal.
That was the first time I realised how much she loves my mum's everyday simple dal. Her dinner that night was precisely two big bowls of dal tadka with one roti or unleavened flatbread.
It made me think of how a childhood friendship was built around the memory of cumin combining with burnt garlic and chilies for tempering a mellow dal.
A life lesson
I was too to eating the home cooked dal to take much notice of it. Only once I started living away from home that I missed the simple, humble homemade dal. My work life left me with no time to cook. At restaurants, I often ordered the dal dish that felt closest to what my mum makes, only to be sorely disappointed.
After months of relentless search, I gave up on the idea of finding anything close to the dal made by my Mum and decided to take the matter into my own hands.
I called up home and asked Mum: “Which dal do you make every day?”
Her reply: “It's usually arhar dal, chilkewali moong and masoor dal, occasionally chana dal too.”
Ermmm… I was flummoxed. Little did I know the varieties, forget cooking them. Very generously, mum offered to help me understand the different types of dal. And this is what I learnt - the most common dals are - toor/arhar dal (yellow split pigeon peas), moong dal (split and skinned green gram, yellow lentils), chilke wali moong dal (yellow lentils with skin), chana (Bengal split gram) dal, masoor dal ( red lentils) and urad dal (split and skinned black gram).
By now, I was a bit stressed at the information overload. I asked Mum: ”How can I differentiate between the different varieties of dals at the shop?”
Her response, a classic life lesson: “Practice and patience.”
I could not help but think how every Indian household has been carrying on the tradition of including dal in so many forms in their everyday meal. No wonder dal has accompanied me everywhere, in different tastes and forms.
At university in the UK, we would often have pot luck, and I remember cooking masoor dal or red lentils for my friends. It took a couple of expensive phone calls to Mum to get it right. But, it was an instant hit.
I teamed it up with steamed basmati rice and some pickles. From that day onwards, Jenny - my German friend, would give me a heads up to cook dal while visiting. The dal I cooked wasn’t as delicious as my Mum’s, but it was close enough and over time I have learnt to cook it well. That’s because cooking dal is often instinctive and like my mum said it required patience and practice.
And, now, I can safely say that masoor dal with steamed basmati rice is my go to meal. Dal is no longer ‘ghar ki murgi’, I’ve learnt to appreciate it.
Here is my recipe:
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
(Note: If you are vegan, you can choose coconut ghee or non-dairy butter instead of clarified butter in the recipe)
- 1 bowl masoor dal
- ½ tsp salt
- ¾ tsp turmeric
- 1 inch ginger pounded
- 1 finely chopped onion
- 1 green chilli
- 3 cloves of garlic chopped
- 1 dry red chilli
- red chilli powder
- 2 tblsp clarified butter or ghee
- 2 tblsp chopped coriander leaves
- 1 teaspoon ghee
- 1 dried red chilli
- ½ tsp jeera
- ¾ tsp red chilli powder
- ½ tsp chopped garlic
To cook the lentil…
- Soak masoor dal for two to three hours. You can also cook in a pressure cooker if you are short on time but slow cooked dals have a unique flavour.
- Rinse the lentils well under running water.
- Put it in a deep, thick-bottomed vessel. Add enough water so that it covers the lentils by an inch.
- Add salt to taste and ¾ teaspoon turmeric. Bring to boil. Spoon and discard the foam collected at the top. Cook for 15-20 to minutes until dal softens. Keep the dal aside.
- Chop onion, green chili and pound ginger. Now, in a separate pan add ¾ tablespoon ghee and heat it. Add onion, chili and ginger until the onion turns golden brown. Add this to the dal.
- Heat ½ teaspoon ghee in a small pan, add jeera, dried red chilli and garlic. Turn off the flame. Carefully pour this tadka onto the dal.
- Garnish with coriander leaves. Serve it with steamed basmati rice or rotis.
Do you have a dal recipe to share? Did you try out my recipe? Let us know at email@example.com