“H OW DO YOU train the chefs?” I asked a star chef at a luxury hotel in Udaipur.
“Very simple. The first thing I teach them is how to make an omelette.”
“Why an omelette?”
“To cook an egg perfectly requires timing, balance in butter and salt, technique in rolling the omelette and an understanding of temperature control. The heat has to be high enough to set the egg and to keep the fluffiness and air but not so high as to brown it.”
So, if making a perfect omelette is the sign of a budding chef in western cuisine, the ability to create a perfect dal is, I think, the sign of someone on their way to mastering Indian cuisine. Getting the right texture of the dal (not mushy, not hard) and infusing it with the right baghar/tadka (the topping of a spice mix sizzled in hot oil) is an art form, and only comes from long practice.
So, it is no wonder, the humble dal features as the star in Pratibha Karan’s The Book of Dals (eBury; 192 pages; ₹999). I’ve cooked from her recipes in Princely Legacy: Hyderabadi Cuisine, and found them to be spot on in terms of the technique and the tastes they delivered. The introductory essay by her husband Vijay Karan was marvellous and revealed the spirit of Hyderabadi cuisine. I came to this book with high hopes and it did not disappoint. Far from it.
PULSES, DAL, IN some form or other, are used in all Indian cuisine. While writing Turmeric Nation, I scouted for a dish that through the millennia, was perceived as quintessentially Indian, a dish in some form every Indian would have sampled historically and which is still available in all parts of the country.
I began with spices and considered how popular and historical imaginations connected India and its discovery as the land of pepper and other spices. Ginger, turmeric, tamarind, black pepper, curry leaves, long pepper, green and black cardamom, and holy basil, tulsi, have a longstanding association with the land. Would one of these spices be present in a dish that was truly pan-Indian, and stand the test of time? No, because the spices and ingredients we use in Indian food today—the garlic, cumin, coriander, fenugreek and mustard seeds—are imports from Western Asia. Even the humble green chilli, which is often seen as peculiar to Indian cuisine is a new import, introduced to India from the Americas only in the 16th century. Chilli became a replacement for long pepper (kaali mirch); hence the name, hari mirch for green chillies in Hindi. A similar tale can be told for pasta and red sauce in Italy where the tomato appeared only after Columbus’ voyage.
But I did find some form of khitchri in every regional cuisine. If we drill down to its component parts, a khitchri is a combination of rice and dal. So the humble dal, as many food writers and food anthropologists have pointed out, is a common thread linking all Indian cuisines. Archaeological evidence from the Harappan sites in North India suggest that dairy-based stews mixed with pulses, cereals and vegetables were cooked then, but whether the process and taste were similar to the dal and curry of today is more contentious since evidence is still being collated. But for us now, dal is part of our diet (for those who can afford it) from a very young age. In the south, rice, dal and ghee are given to a three-month-old baby to start them on solid foods. It is no wonder then, for many in the subcontinent, dal-chawal is comfort food.
Writing in 1762, Azad Bilgrami said that the reason for the dry temperament of the Indian people could be traced to their diet. Whether rich or poor, the base of the Indian diet was dal-i-tur (split pigeon pulse, Cajanus cajan) to which they added little to no oil. Instead, they added red chillies, asafoetida and turmeric to all their dishes.
KARAN’S RECIPES DEAL with 14 dals—arhar, urad, split urad, kabuli chana, rajma, masoor, split masoor, matar, kaala chana, chana dal, lobia, moong, and split moong. In a note for the reader, she discusses their different cooking times. Black lentils, Bengal gram dal, kabuli chana and rajma have to be soaked overnight and cooked preferably in a pressure cooker. The other dals have a shorter cooking time, especially if soaked for half an hour prior to the cooking. The photographs accompanying the recipes were mouthwatering.
If making a perfect omelette is the sign of a budding chef in western cuisine, the ability to create a perfect dal is the sign of someone on their way to mastering Indian cuisine
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As with any cookbook, the test is in the execution of the recipes. The processes were simple enough for a novice cook, and the ingredients listed can be found in any Indian kitchen. I tried the Telangana Arhar Dal with Red Chillies and Garlic — very simple and super tasty. You add garlic and red chilli paste and salt to cooked lentils and then a tadka of red chillies in ghee. The Masoor di Khatti Dal is another easy dish that came out well as did the Khatti Dal (with garlic, curry leaves, tamarind and red chillies) and Rajasthan’s Mooger Dal (very fresh with curry leaves, green coriander, red chilli powder, cloves and lemon wedges).
Mixed dal Rasam from my home state, Tamil Nadu, was interesting and unfamiliar to me. It had a mix of dals, tamarind, hing, red chillies and tomatoes, and a tadka that included cashew nuts and peanuts. Another recipe for tomato rasam had jaggery and onion—again not what I am used to but nevertheless was an unusual detour worth trying.
There were other interesting dals I plan to try in the future. An Angoor ki Dal from Gujarat uses green grapes. The recipe though, is for a regular arhar dal with a tadka of mustard, cumin, red chilli, and later the sugar and grapes are added to the cooked dal. It could be that the green grapes give the warm acidic pop of a lemon in the mouth, and add piquancy to the dish.
Another one is Thikri ki Dal from Hyderabad where the tadka has small pieces of broken terracotta (the type used to serve phirni) heated over the gas until they burn red and then are immersed in the lentils. The Bisi Bele Huliyana from Karnataka is a spicy variant of dal, rice and vegetables, a one pot meal with a complex layering of spices such as fenugreek, coriander, aniseeds, mustard, hing and red chillies.
Among the sweets, a payasam made with moong dal and jaggery, and flavoured with cardamom and saffron, an all-time favourite of mine and usually served in temples, came out exactly right. So did moong dal halwa, a winter favourite, and thankfully, this version was not oily like those sold in sweet shops.
The geographical particularities are also evident in the differences between the dal recipes. The recipes from Kerala include other spices grown in the state such as cardamom, cinnamon and fennel, which make for a fragrant and complex layering of flavours. Coconut is also used in dishes like Muringakai Theeyal and Kerala Parippu Curry.
The East Indian recipes such as those from West Bengal use a five spice (panchforon) combination of nigella, fennel, cumin, mustard and fenugreek in the tadka. Jharkhand’s Chana Dal blends the Kerala style spices with coconut, ginger, onion and tomato. The Bengali sweet tooth is evident in their chana dal recipe, which includes raisins, cashew and desiccated coconut. Neighbouring Assam, on the other hand, prefers a simpler unsweetened version in Mati Maa, black lentils cooked with tomatoes, onion, turmeric and red chillies, with a tadka of garlic ginger, green and red chillies, cumin seeds and a bay leaf.
The recipes from west India, particularly Maharashtra and Goa (and Sindhis too), use kokum, a deep purple berry with a sweet and sour taste. It elevates and mellows the flavour into a more complex rendering. I was surprised by the similarity between the Maharashtrian and Kerala taste for jaggery and coconut in recipes such as Moong Usal, lentils in coconut milk and Katachi Amti (a sweet and sour dal with tamarind and jaggery and green chillies). Goan dal, on the other hand, tends to be more spicy. Coconut and Chilli Lentils with its shallots, coconut milk, red chillies and curry leaves reminded me of the Thai red curry gravy. The meat versions of the dals are in Khichra (Gujarat), a variation of Haleem in a mix of lentils, meat and spices.
While reading the recipes I wondered if some spices were used in all the regions. Cumin (jeera) or caraway (shahi jeera) seeds, green or red chillies or chilli powder, salt and oil or ghee are staples, usually in the tadka. Onions, ginger and garlic appear more often in north Indian and Hyderabadi dals, sugar was more evident in Gujarati dal, tamarind in south Indian recipes, and lemons in the north.
A key attribute of a cuisine is the shared understanding of taste. Scholars have highlighted pan-Indian elements in our cuisine, and three stand out. They transcend religion, caste and region and define our shared thinking about what constitutes tasty food. A sense of equilibrium (that draws on the concept of humours from Ayurveda and Unani texts), a flavour principle (each spice in the dish performs a unique function; if you put aamchur powder, you are less likely to also use lemon juice or tamarind), and an engagement with layers of history in our culinary practices, define Indian cuisine.
The recipes of the humble dal, spotlighted by The Book of Dals, embody the spirit of Indian cuisine.