Dal Days made of lentils

Bengalis often have a problem with vowels. So “dull” becomes “daal”, “sheet” becomes “shit” or conversely, “shit” becomes “sheet”. I remember once urging my friends to go to the “bitch”. I was a goody two-shoes sixteen-year-old and actually meant our nice neighbourhood beach in Madras Chennai. The only Bengali in that group guffawed with a “Bengalis are always doing that”. Her tone of voice suggested that she did not consider herself to be one of those Bengalis. The others kept politely quiet. Needless to say, I became very vigilant about my vowels.

Today’s post is not about how dull the weather is here these days but about lentils which North Indians call “daal”, written as dal but you gotta stretch the “a”. We eat a lot of dal and we eat a variety of it: red, brown, yellow, green or black prepared in a multitude of ways. Although you wouldn’t know it if you happened to visit while my sister and I were still living with our parents. My mother had to make red lentils or masoor dal perfumed with black caraway almost every single day. My sister and I were that fond of it. On days when my mother made another kind of dal, we ate grudgingly. Mealtime was just not the same.

There is nothing as comforting as a plate of rice with dal. That is what we Indians call soul food. But for a middle-class Bengali, no meal would be complete, at least not lunch, without a fish stew as a second course. That is the bare-bones of a lunch for a Bengali back where I come from. Serve him just dal-bhat, that’s dal-rice in Bengali, or even just maach-bhat, that’s fish-rice, and he will immediately inquire with concern after the health of the cook, or the state of finances, or the sanity of the lady of the house.

Which is why I often thank my lucky stars that I have been smart enough to marry into a family whose cultural heritage is far removed from anything Indian. I could invite them for a meal and coolly serve them dal-bhat and nothing but dal-bhat and they would declare it to be the best meal ever! Even making it part of their regular diet at home.

My son on the other hand, true to his Bengali genes, would like more. So ever since he has started eating with the grown-ups, meals tend to be much more elaborate. Now dal-bhat often gets a bhaja, that’s something fried – any kind of vegetable, including potatoes. You see, Indians, barring a modern minority, continue to staunchly consider potatoes a vegetable, no matter what the rest of the world says. And there might be a maach for a second course. Unless it is fried and served as the bhaja with the dal-bhat. Although in Bengal, having fried fish with the dal is no excuse not to have a fish stew as well! I might even make a torkari, which you might remember is a vegetable dish, in lieu of the bhaja. Looking at the spread, my husband and in-laws ask “What’s the occasion?” At which point I have to admit that this is what my parents eat, every single day.

But do not for one moment think that cooking a three-course meal like that needs hours of slaving over the stove. I can make all that in less than an hour. Sometimes even half an hour, if my son does not try to “help” or worse, needs help looking for a Lego piece. The trick is to have things cooking in parallel, and prep for the next dish while the previous dish is cooking. Also one has to start cooking in the following order, lentils, rice, vegetables and fish. But don’t worry, you still have time!

In the meantime, you could practice with these dal recipes below.

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I have a weakness for red lentils, in case it is not clear already. But it is also the easiest lentil to cook, already quite flavourful. You will see how with the addition of a single spice or ingredient, the character of the dish changes. And no, you do not have to eat any of them with rice. Eat it with any grain or bread you like. Or none at all. Remember to season accordingly. In general, if you are going to eat it like a soup, add less salt than you need if you are eating it with a grain. How thin you make the dal is entirely up to you. I make my dal anywhere from runny to thick as a porridge, depending on my mood and the accompaniments. Again, just remember to adjust the seasoning.

Oh and one more thing, please, please cook your lentils until they are falling apart. Lentils are not meant to be al dente, especially in Indian cooking! My apologies to John! Fifteen years ago, I served him watery red lentil soup with beads of lentils that were a lot harder than al dente. In my defence, I was out of my element in Germany, and a nervous and inexperienced cook to boot. Plus, he and our other friends had been already been waiting for some time at the dinner table. The kind gentleman gallantly declared that he preferred my version to the “porridge-like” version in restaurants. Bless his heart!

Recipe 1: Red lentils with Black caraway or kalojirer masoor dal

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Ingredients
1 cup red lentils or masoor dal, washed and picked over
1 tsp of black caraway/nigella seeds or kalonji or kalojire
1 dried red chilli (optional)
1 tsp turmeric  (optional)
Salt 1 tsp or to taste
1 tsp oil

Process – Take a really large, heavy bottom pot. Heat oil till it is almost smoking. Add the black caraway and red chilli if using (ventilation alert!). If you want the smoky flavour of red chilli without any heat whatsoever, then break it and discard the seeds. Once the black caraway/nigella is sizzling and the chilli is nicely browned, add your lentils and about three cups of water. You could fish out the chilli at this point. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to medium. If you have taken a big enough pot, then you will not have to worry about the contents of the pot boiling over. But in case you still have this problem, keep a cup of cold water handy. Whenever the lentils threaten to spill out of the pot, sprinkle a handful of cold water on the top. Repeat this as many times as necessary until the lentils have learned their lesson. Simmer until the lentils are falling apart. How long this takes depends on the water and the lentils, so although it takes me about 20 minutes it could easily take more for you. If the water starts to boil down too much, add more (preferably hot). Finally, when the lentils are cooked, adjust the liquid levels till you get the consistency you are looking for. Salt generously. If  you like a smooth dal, you can use a hand-mixer to break up the lentils. A hand-whisk might also do a less efficient but adequate job. I usually don’t bother.

Serve with wedges of lemon or lime. A squeeze (or several) of lemon or lime juice is almost mandatory. And slices or cucumber or tomatoes go extremely well as a side.

Recipe 2: Red lentils with tomatoes

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Growing up, this was the only other dal preparation that we ate happily. My husband gets very excited whenever I make this dal.

Ingredients
1 cup red lentils
1 can of diced tomatoes or 4-5 fresh, acidic tomatoes diced
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 dried red chilli (optional)
1 tsp turmeric (optional)
Salt to taste
1 tsp oil

Process – Follow the same steps as in the recipe above. Add the tomatoes with the lentils. You can increased the quantity of tomatoes if you like your lentils more tomato-y. But most importantly, the tomatoes should be acidic rather than sweet. The tangier the dish, the more refreshing it is. To further ensure this, make sure that the tomatoes break down and release their juices during cooking. You can help this by pressing them against the sides of the pot with your spoon near the end of the cooking.

Recipe 3: Red lentils with onions

This dish is almost like the khichuri recipe in my other post. Except that you don’t cook the rice along with the lentils.

Ingredients

1 cup red lentils
1 cup sliced onions
1 dried red chilli (optional)
1 tsp turmeric (optional)
Salt to taste
2 tsps oil

Process – Follow the same steps as in recipe 1. Add your onions to the oil and stir-fry for a minute. Then add the lentils and proceed as usual.

Lastly, I have to add a gem of a fact. Bengalis consider masoor or red lentils to be “non-vegetarian”, which means it is in the same category as meat, fish and poultry. Why? No idea! Also onions fall in the same category. So a dish combining masoor dal and onions is practically the same as a dish made of meat and onions. Just something I thought I’d let you think about while that dal is cooking.

Any of these dals will go very well with the carrot dishes I wrote about the other day.

Here’s hoping that lentils will feature more frequently in your everyday cooking.

 

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