Perhaps no vegetarian meal is complete with the protein powerhouse that dal is. However, just like there are many ways to skin a cat, there are far far too many ways to make your dal.
First, to broadly categorise it – there are three primary dals- moong, toor and masoor. Of course there are the urad and chana dals, and while the latter is perhaps eaten regularly in Punjab, for us folks down south, urad dal is best known for its role in idly–dosa rather than dal makhni or dal bukhara. I think chana dal is used by Bengalis (called cholar dal), but we Maharashtrians make puran poli or watli dal best out of it.
So the dal-icious part of the equation I am talking about features the trinity mentioned above, and is, for most parts eaten with rice. And those who wish to protest at the treatment meted out to roti or poli, I will concede a tiny bit, and agree that the said dal could albeit go with roti, it’s never as satisfying, when paired with hot steamed rice and some ghee on the top (I never stop raving about the ghee, do I?!!)
Growing up, we only would eat toor and moong dal. Living in a new country, and managing the hearth, meant you had to keep an eye on costs of your grocery shopping. Given that our Indian mentality still makes us convert everything into rupees, paying Rs.350/kilo for toor dal seemed a sacrilege, an indulgence. So we decided to cut down on the toor dal consumption and look for substitutes else where. Also given the fact that there were impromptu lunch and dinner parties at home (the fallout of both husband and wife who love eating, cooking and feeding others), moong and masoor emerged as our new favourites. It also helped that these were locally available, and hence did not need a trip to the solitary Indian store, when we ran out of stock.
So armed with three dals, numerous spices and seasonings, and plenty of vegetables to give that distinct taste, the mathematician in me, was making up combinations at an enviable speed. Here is a list of my favourites, so far:
- Sadha varan – This is plain toor dal, pressure cooked to mushy softness (almost like butter, as my grandmother says). It is important that no grainy texture is left. As children, we ate this with steamed rice, a sprinkling of salt, a squeeze of lemon and dollops of ghee (the ghee would be cut out only if we had fever, and then this combination tasted rather bland. I have seen my mother eat it with only ghee, no salt with poli. In our Taipei home, this is had at least once a fortnight, and I mostly match its making & eating right after making home-made ghee (which has that extra bit of freshness). My friend, A, adds sugar instead of lemon, and that is how her kids (and I, on one occasion that I was visiting her) were fed this combination. In other parts of my family, this plain dal would be seasoned with hing (asafoetida) – sans any tadka, and gul (jaggery). Every Marathi pangat (a sit-down-to-eat-and-be-served affair) begins with this simple sadha-varan-bhat, before progressing to more complex tastes and flavours – a sort of preparing your canvas by using water-washing it before actually starting to paint. Now, this is best eaten, right after you have lifted the lid off your cooker, and mashed your dal. Left to cool, this doesn’t pack the same punch the steaming, hot version does – and even reheating fails to revive it. Should your dal cool off, your next best option is to make….
- Amti – Amti is, in my humble opinion, at the heart of any Maharashtrian meal. A basic recipe for amti calls for the cooked toor dal, a souring agent (any of amsul or kokam, chinch (tamrind) or amchur (dry mango powder)), a sweetening agent (mostly gul (jaggery) or sugar), a phodni (tempering made out of mustard, cumin and hing, curry leaves) and homemade goda masala. This amti changes its taste in every Marathi home, depending on the sour and sweet agents used, and of course, the goda masala, whose recipes are closely guarded secrets, passed down from generation to generation. As if these combinations are not enough, there are other ingredients like fresh coconut (esp in kokanasth amtis) and fresh coriander, which can subtly change the flavour of this soupy broth. This amti can be made as thick or thin as desired, can be plain and can also have vegetables like pumpkin, radish, doodhi, capsicum or onions (separately or in combination) dictating and altering the taste. (Oh, and I think a corrigendum is in order. While amti definitely goes with rice, I have eaten amti with kuskarleli poli (chapati or roti, which has been broken into crumbs) every day of my childhood. And so did my brother. Till we could chew. So there. Dal can be had with poli. Corrigendum over). Considering the numerous combos, it is no wonder that the Marathi manoos doesn’t ever tire of eating this every day, except to break the monotony with…
- Moong dal – While moong dal is undoubtedly .. part of khichadi, cooking it separately and seasoning it with a phodni of mustard, jeera, turmeric and hing, curry leaves, ginger (or garlic – though I reserve garlic for the masoor dal), green chillies and coriander, has it’s own merit. Since moong dal cooks very easily, and is easy to digest, this doesn’t necessarily require a pressure cooker. And if you happen to have the smaller moong dal (grown in Bengal and Orissa), it is best to cook it in a pan, than a pressure cooker, to preserve the grainy texture. In India, we also get the chilta moong (split unhusked green moong), which can be another variation of your dal, to go with rice. In Marathi homes, the whole green moong is sprouted and made into usal, which is generally eaten with chapati or poli, and not rice (and I wonder why this treatment, but ..). I can sing praises of this versatile dal to infinity, so I better make it into another post..which brings us to…
- Masoor dal – Masoor dal is a orange coloured lentil, split and de-husked which changes colour to yellow on cooking. This was generally favoured for its bright colour in geography projects or indoor rangolis, but never made it to our plate in my maher (mother’s home). My experiments made me try this dal hesitatingly, at first. I was not aware of its texture or taste on cooking, and what combinations will go well with it. I also made the mistake of buying the akkha masoor (whole lentil), and was exasperated cooking or rather trying to cook it. That was one tough nut to crack. Now I have settled to cooking only with the split version, and that too with tomato and onion, sometimes dhania-jeera powder, at times with garam masala and the usual tadka but always laced with garlic. This dal reminds you particularly of a north Indian dal, thanks to the garam masala and garlic tempering, and I have not made any attempts to Maharashtrian-ise it…
- Sambhar – While on the subject on the non-Marathi dals, sambhar makes it to my list, thanks to my genetics. Being a half kannadiga (one-fourth from each side – yes that’s the breakup), settling down in Hyderabad, and learning Carnatic musicMy musical journey … (Part I) from Tamil teachers (making me an almost Tamilian, according to one), how could I not love my sambhar?! From eating it in temples or mutths as prasadam (where it is called by kannada name – huli) to every Udupi restaurant to Telugu weddings to making it at home, it’s has been an amazing sambhar journey. I have learnt the distinct tastes of the various sambhars of each state, and happily lapped them all up. Starting with ready-made sambhar powders, I have now graduated to making fresh one every time – subtly changing the ratios and proportions to introduce different tastes. My latest experiments using freshly ground coconut and garlic (resulting in a Mangalore style sambhar) to cooking pumpkin with the toor dal to thicken my sambhar have met with resounding success, and which my guests (and I, if I say so myself) will happily endorse. For those who thought sambhar was only to be had with idly-dosa-uttapa-wada, try eating it with rice – I am sure you will go back for second helpings. While sambhar is always made from toor dal, there are two other main dishes, (more like one pot meals), which I should also mention in the passing…
- Bisi-bele-bhat – Bisi-bele-bhat (hot spicy rice) may seem like a mix up of sambhar rice, served together rather than separately, it’s something far more than that. For one, bisi-bele-bhat has a more strong masala (thanks to the whole garam masala and Marathi moggu, a clove like spice, features predominantly in it). Also, the various vegetables that go into the mix blend very nicely with each other and set it apart from sambhar rice. My best bisi-bele-bhat memories are those eaten at my mami’s house and at mom’s friends’ house. Those memories still make my mouth water.
- Dal-dhokli (or varan phala) – This is Gujarati/Marathi (called chakolya in Marathi) pasta dish, if I may call it that. Our version of this dish (called varan-phala) consisted of making the above amti (starting out thin), making phala or pasta using wheat flour (making a dough, rolling it out, and cutting it into diamond shapes), and cooking the phala in the boiling amti, gradually thickening it, as the phala cooked. Of course, the Gujarati version is to make a more flavourful dhokli using besan, ajwain, chilly powder and turmeric added to the wheat flour. Also DD tastes better if the tempering is ghee-based than oil-based (ghee just makes everything better, don’t you think?!). We have happily lapped up our version of dal-dhokli for many a Sunday lunches, followed by dahi-bhat and made the most of Sunday afternoons by settling down with book, ending in a happy nap, thanks to the wonderful food nestled in the belly. Oh, a word of caution – serve dal-dhokli, right after making it, the pasta can turn soggy in no time (usually by the time you help yourself to seconds) – perhaps because it’s so freshly made.
- Dal makhni – (This doesn’t fall into three dals category above, but thought to mention it anyway since it’s) A restaurant favourite (read: what I always order when I eat out in Indian restaurants, if available on the menu), I am yet to make it at home. I have chanced upon kaali maa-ki-dal (whole black urad ) only recently, so till I whip out my version in my kitchen, I am happy to eat at our local Indian restaurant..
Have I missed out any version of your favourite dal? Do let me know…I can always add to my repertoire.