The Dal Directory
Five versions of dal. Words by Meher Varma; Illustration by Samia Singh
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“There are three rungs of privilege: those who don’t cook; those who perform some cooking; and finally those who cook because the first two rungs aren’t really cooking”. So begins Ireti Oluwagbemi’s inquiry into the eating habits of Nigerian househelps for the African Scramble edition of Sandwich Magazine.
Privilege announces itself in the Indian kitchen like the whistles on a pressure cooker. The pressure cooker advertised itself in India, as it did around the world, as a time saving device for the cook ─ the real cook. In doing so it also allowed more people to access the second rung on this ladder from both ends. The repertoire of slow cooked dishes were no longer limited to those who had the non-privilege of too much time, while students, away from their parents and from hired help, could use them as ‘baby’s first cooking device’, a way of accessing home without having to go through the trouble of learning how to make roti from scratch with their hands.
If not exactly the great equaliser, the pressure cooker still runs through today’s wonderful dal directory by Meher Varma as a compelling subplot. Dal is fascinating because - while there are broadly regional styles - the way you make it says as much about where you are now and shifting circumstances than it does about some kind of immutable past. In these five dal recipes, all taken from homes in the south of Delhi, you may not learn too much about regional variation or precious traditions, handed down from mother to daughter and captured in the written equivalent of a swooning Chef’s Table tracking shot, but you will learn how the quotidian reality of dal might vary depending on how much time you have, how much money, where you shop, the small compromises you have to make depending on who you’re cooking for, who you’re married to, and also who you stole the recipe from.
Alternatively, you can simply read these texts functionally as recipes and let them become part of your own repertoire. If you do, please note that there are very few exact measurements or times given: it turns out that Indian women have been reading too much of the New York Times no-recipe recipe section.
The Dal Directory, by Meher Varma
When Emperor Aurangzeb imprisoned his father, Shah Jahan, he allowed him to choose one dish that would be served to him daily. Shah Jahan chose dal, the Bengal gramin particular. Aurangzeb had declared his father too incompetent to rule but Shah Jahan’s choice betrayed his sound judgment, as there could be no answer with more variation. Daily servings of slow cooked dal, prepared by an appointed chef, could essentially look and taste a little different everyday, significantly undercutting the monotony that comes with doing time.
But in India, you don’t need royal treatment to experience dal diversity. It is not just hyper-regional, but household specific, and can be made in many ways, by the same cook, day to day. While an outsider might read this as a ‘oh-sweet, everyone-is-special’ narrative, these differences are largely due to class, caste, religious and economic differences, as well as the canvas-like character of dal, which lends itself to variation.
But in variation also lies the possibility of discrimination. Recently, a friend of mine was dating a guy and things were getting pretty serious. His parents would even invite her over for meals quite often. She reported decent conversation, but one day, she confessed that there was ‘one niggling feeling’ she harbored in her stomach: the moong daal at their house, which they served day after day, was ‘off.’ While I laughed at her objection, and imagined the ridiculousness of lentils being the thing to sabotage her marriage, the more I thought about it the more I understood. This was not just about too little garlic, or too much onion. In her perceived ‘offness’ was a misalignment of ‘tastes’ – the place where class, caste and that loaded thing called ‘background’ intersect.
Freud’s theory of the “narcissism of small differences” posits that the more similar two people are, the more sensitized they are to difference. My friend and her now ex-boyfriendwho would easily be categorized as upper-middle class, exemplify this theory. To each of them, and to each household, the everyday dal on their table is uniquely theirs, a gustatory umbilical cord connecting them and their oft romanticised pasts.
India is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of lentils. Indeed, dal flows through our veins; when I want to express that something is embodied in a family ─ like hypochondria ─ I say the thing is ‘like the dal on the table’, and people understand. If I was to call five people I know in Delhi, right before lunchtime, chances are that they or someone who works for them is making dal. It is the thing that we can’t live without and at the same time, the item most taken for granted on our tables.
This is a little recipe directory, produced through casual conversations. Though the five kitchens featured here are separated by 30-40 minute car rides at the most, these dals can be, for the people who consume them, experienced like the difference between night and day, delicious and abominable. But these opinions are cultural texts: people’s everyday dal will tell you a bit about where they’ve come from and where they will just not go.
Preeti’s Mixed Dal (as narrated, in translation)
Preeti works as a cleaner in Defence Colony, which is a short, ten minute walk from Kotla, where she lives in a home that is as big as most of her employers’ master bedrooms. The relationship between Defence Colony and Kotla is Downtown Abbeyesque. Preeti and I are the same age, except she has three children and a full time job. She began working for me two years ago.
The dal that Preeti makes is not the dal that she grew up making in her village in Bihar, which is as she reports, infinitely simpler. It is the dal that reflects her new ‘Dilli’ taste - one that has come from eating at the homes of her employers, who sometimes feed her when she is done cleaning. At home, she says, people don’t know about ‘tadka’-- they eat very lightly, simply. In her family, a Hindu family that has been in the sweet making business for the last few decades, no one, including her, eats meat. But her younger cousins eat eggs in secret.
The first sea change in Preeti’s taste happened not with her migration to the city, but after she got married, 14 years ago. “My husband’s family is in the police, and they eat meat, of course, and lots and lots of oil,” she says, splitting into a giggle. We joke, together, about how her ‘sweet’ background stands no chance against his militarised tastes.
Today, her kitchen represents the confluence of police and sweets, her rural roots and urban life. There are still, however, separate oil and utensils that are to be used only for cooking anything forbidden and sentient.
I mix 1 cup moong and 2 massor; both are available in Kotla, and currently cost between 80 to 100 rupees a kilo. I let them soak for 5 minutes, before putting them into a pressure cooker with ½ spoon haldi, and a bit of salt. I give it one whistle, and that’s why I make this dal: it gets made very quickly. Because of my work schedule, I make food that is quick.
As the pressure cooker is releasing its steam, I fry some onions, sometimes I buy more, and sometimes less
Shefalee Nair’s, ‘Very Shefalee Nair’ Dal
Everyone who has eaten Shefalee Nair’s dal talks about it. Especially her husband, Vikram Nair, ex-restaurant owner, and author of Gone With The Vindaloo (2014) who in an email to me writes: “when we lived in sin about 45 years ago, it was this dal, that aroused, among other things, my interest in cooking… call Shef for details. V”
It takes me a while to get Shef on the line; she's in Coonoor, setting up an alternate home away from the Capital, which is not even her actual home. She is from Uttar Pradesh. But mobility seems to be in her bones: she worked as an air hostess for British Airways (BA) through most of her adult life.
Because she’s given out this recipe plenty of times, she delivers it like a star singer giving in to an encore. Same reason why Shefalee’s dal is called “Shefalee’s Dal,” although she confirms that most information about its origin, including fragments from personal memory cannot be verified. She would like to also give credit to a cook who was working for her flatmate, with whom she lived with when she was working with BA. “I think, actually I’m quite sure, it was him who used to make this dal, but I may be wrong,” she says, assuring me of her unreliability. But, in delivering instructions, accuracy reigns supreme.
You take moong dal, which you know people normally eat when they are sick and you boil it with haldi and salt. You’ll see that scum form that usually forms. You see, there is no pressure cooking involved in this recipe, so you have to keep removing the scum.
Once it's nicely mushy, you take the karchi (ladle), and keep mashing it; this is not khara dal, it's a mushy dal. OK? Once that’s all done, you take ghee, tomatoes, and the Kashmiri tikkiThere’s a big masala shop, and a small masala shop. Go to the small one, that’s where I go to get my special monthly groceries, and just ask the guy for the tikki, he will give it to you. It’s red and has lots of herbs and spices in it. Kashmiris use it for meat, and other things, but I use it for this dal.
So, you heat the ghee, put in tomatoes, and again cook on a very low fire, until that becomes mushy too. Yup, it's all mushy. Then, using a mortar and pestle, you ground the tikki finely, before throwing into the ghee. This is where the flavour is, like a bath bomb in a tub!
Now back on a low, simmering fire, you stir nicely, until the masala, the tadka, which usually just sits on top of a dal, is incorporated fully. That’s what really distinguishes this dal from others: the tadka is not the end. Finally, you take a lot of hara dhania, fresh coriander, and scatter on top for garnish.
You’ll be done at this stage, but Shef reminds me a few times that unless you feel that the process is s-lllooow while you’re in it, you’re probably doing it wrong. But the slowness has rewards besides taste: this dal is full of flavour but is lightest on the system, which is why it’s the dal for the sick in its original, non-bath-bomb-infused form. Some say that dal is also the god sent food for mourners, because its physical construction ─ non serrated and smooth ─ is symbolic of circular living, and people can consume it in silence.
Saha’s Mango Dal
I have a tough time getting a recipe out of Pradip Saha, because he keeps telling me his dal is not “recipe worthy.” I realize that the only strategy to score his dal recipe is to go over. A healthy amount of wine and one smashed glass later (my fault), I’ve made progress.
Pradip, who I always call Saha, lives in Saket, right near a busy metro station. Before the area became known as the ‘mall area’ (there are four giant ones), it was more famous for Press Enclave: still a major Saket landmark, originally built for journalists, and those who work in the press. When I reach his house on a Friday evening at six, he’s still wrapping up work: he heads Damage Control, a communication consultancy, with a focus on the social sector. Somewhere between making calls and doling out loose Friday night instructions to his son-with-plans, Saha has managed to neatly peel a bunch of lauki (calabash): their skin has formed a mountain of curls in a corner. “My grandmother, she was from a very poor family, she used to cook the lauki’s skin too,” he says, when he sees me eyeing the remnants.
Saha typically buys his veggies in the Lado Sarai evening market, an area that is a mishmash result of urban sprawl, but he doesn’t have a shopping ritual. “It’s more like, today I need pumpkin, so I go out and get it…. Also I don’t have an organic fetish,” he says, telling me about how he privileges trust in the supplier ─ a quality that comes from a mix of things, including instinct ─ over a label.
Along with mango dal, a summer Saha staple, “we are getting a simply cooked lauki, and we’ll fry up some fish,” Saha tells me, in a way that sounds like it's going to be collaborative. But I know from our friendship that he embodies too much agency for something like that. Two silver pomfrets that have resigned to a similar fate, stare at me from the sink.
As predicted, when the cooking begins, I am a passenger, and my participation is something that is not objected to but something I know he can easily do without. Getting his dal started, he tells me that this recipe is based on his mood today. And some recipes, he tells me, are based on his accidents.
In the pressure cooker, heat sarson ka tel, let it get hot. Throw in a handful of mustard seeds, let them crackle. Put in mangoes, skin on. Sauté in oil. Mango gets mustard flavour, oil gets mango flavour. Pour dal. You can use many dals, but today the mood is masoor, so masoor. Mix it with the cooked mango. Don’t use ripe mango, OK? Pour water, add a bit of haldi and a bit of salt. Pressure cook. Three whistles, maybe 4. My sister and I disagree on how many whistles. This is chalaaki (trickery) daal, because it’s tasty and it's done so quickly. Let the pressure cooker release steam, done.
Shaista Khan works at an illicit beauty parlor on my street. It's a sweet little place in the basement of a house. With no visible signs, it’s a place you can discover only through word of mouth or olfactory intuition (follow the traces of alluring chemical shampoo or burning wax). Here, Shaista is commander in chief, the hairdresser who is most requested for, and the only one that many women trust with popular, always hushly requested ‘bikni wax.’
Shaista and her husband, who runs a small shoe outlet in Okhla, right by Jamia Millia Islamia: a well established university with a history of political activism. It’s a Muslim dominated neighborhood where “Hindus and Muslims live nicely together,” Shaista tells me, recalling how during protests you always see a breakdown of religious barriers. She credits this to the many students who live there, but, like many other minorities in the Capital, is unsure how long this unity will last.
Shaista and her husband get home at only about 8pm every evening, after a series of bus and auto rides. Every two or three days, Shaista stops to buy vegetables on the way from the Okhla mandi: a large, open air market with hundreds of vegetable cart sellers. She enters the kitchen after a super brief rest, and makes what she makes almost everyday: dal, veggies, rotis and rice. To save herself trouble (and also collapse from fatigue) she always kneads the aata for the rotis in the morning and keeps it in the fridge. Then, the rest of dinner takes about thirty minutes, and is Shaista’s responsibility entirely. By the time she sleeps, she says, she often doesn’t know her head from her toe.
This is the recipe for her mazedaar (delicious) everyday dal, in translation. It embodies an agreement that she and her husband, “who must eat meat everyday” have come to. If it was just up to her, she says, could do without the meat. “But he’s a Pathan, and he buys the mutton on weekends,’ she finishes, in a tone that signals an acceptance of variegated histories.
First wash and soak the dal, for as long as you can. At least 10 minutes. While it’s soaking, wash the mutton pieces, and make sure to drain out the excess water. Then, boil the dal and mutton together, adding salt and haldi, like usual. Add three cups of water, and give it 3 whistles. The dal will become soft. Then, in another small saucepan, heat ghee: two teaspoons. You have to use ghee, refined oil is not good. Add zeera, and I love to add red chillis. If you don’t have them, you can add green. Add in a few onions, fry till gold. Add ginger garlic paste, and fry everything together.
Then add black pepper, a bit of garam masala, till you see the oil come out (it will sort of separate). Add the cooked daal and meat to this over an open flame. Let it all cook together for ten minutes or so. Add fresh dhania when you’re done.
Eat while its hot, with two or three rotis, and I always need some pickle too. Its really mazedaar.
My Aunt Shobha’s Sambhar
My Tai, my Dad’s eldest brother’s wife, is from a Brahmin family in Karnataka. She’s been living in Delhi, in “this UPfamily” since she got married, except for the last couple of years, when they moved to NOIDA, a planned satellite city bordering East Delhi. This was a retirement decision as Noida offers more space than the Capital at half the cost, and all the facilities necessary for senior-citizen living, including accessible markets and a hospital.
Though my uncle doesn't really have a palate for “sambhar dal,” it’s what she likes to cook for herself. This recipe is what she grew up eating everyday. This the sambhar dal her mum would make, but the ritual involved was different: “My mum’s kitchen was pure veg, and we couldn’t, as children, enter the kitchen without a bath. She would first take a bath, then offer food to the gods, then make this sambhar.” When Tai moved to London in the 80s, on a work assignment for Air India, she started making this dish, though sometimes she’d shower only afterwards.
Take toor dal, I think they are called pigeon peas in English, about 8 tablespoons. Collect your veggies: drumsticks for sure, pumpkin okra, brinjal… just please don't use carrot and gobi, that’s very North India. My help picks up whatever veggies are seasonal and good in the market, right from our neighborhood cart sellers and shops in Noida.
Boil peas and water, with salt, asafoetida, and tumeric: give it 3 whistles. On the side, prepare your tamarind: soak a tablespoon worth in water for about twenty minutes, until you can take out the pulp. On the other side, boil veggies separately, with salt. Don't over boil though, let them retain their crunch. To the boiled veggies, add tamarind, and add sambhar powder. You can use either MTR or 777, MTR is spicier, I use whatever comes in my hands, you need 1 fat teaspoon.
Now, your dal is probably done. Mash it a bit and switch off the flame. It’ll be a bit thick, because I put a lot of daal, like we do in Karnataka. In Tamil Nadu, they put less. Anyway, please note how up to this point there has been no oil! No oil!
Now, the tempering: In a small pan, heat 1 tsp oil. Add ¼ spoon mustard seeds, let them splutter. Add 3-4 grains of methi seeds, and finally curry patta. Pour this over the sambhar. Eat it with rice and a bit of papad.
Meher Varma is a cultural anthropologist, brand storyteller, and writer. More on @agramofmeher and mehervarma.com
The illustrations are by Samia Singh, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Chandigarh, India. Please find more of her work on her website or on Instagram.
Many thanks to Sharanya Deepak for additional edits.
All recipe contributors were paid or offered payment for this article.
AKA Chana Dal
Loosely translated as ‘tempering.’
The price of onions fluctate greatly, and middle class consumers often use this as a telltale sign of political health (i.e when prices are tear-jerking high, things are not good). Onions are part of the kharif (autumn) crop, which have been affected by climate change and erratic rains.
A masala mix in solid form, almost like a stock cube, or something. https://www.kashmiribazaar.in/shikara-kashmiri-masala-tikki
Colloquial abbreviation for Indian National Airways Market, but few locals know this. INA is just INA to most, and it’s one of the best places to shop for produce, imported foods, and seafood in the city.
We talked about LUSH bath bombs for a minute.
Radha, on the other hand, his housekeeper, is someone he says “sorts his life out.” Her labor, however, is not just evident in the cleanliness of the space but also in creative organisation: she has put the mustard seeds, essential for this recipe, “somewhere else.”
It was drunk cooking that got him to realize that Bengali panch phoran is great with olive oil.
Short for Uttar Pradesh
Abbreviation for New Okhla Industrial Development Authority, though again this is more like trivia. Noida is such a commonplace abbreviation, that you don’t really even need to capitalize it. It’s considered part of the National Capital Region (NCR) which is a technicality that becomes very important when you are checking out food delivery radius’, especially during a lockdown.
Implicit in her excitement is a victory over North Indian dals, particularly restaurant dals, which can often drown in oil -- a fact that gets linked to cardiac arrests.
beautiful writing. thank you.
Such a lovely article. Going to try my hand at some of them soon.