Dal is ubiquitous in India.In fact, it is as common as pasta is to Italy. An emblematic feature of Indian cuisine, dal is an integral part of every Indian thali. Perhaps it’s the closest India has come to a national dish. And why not? It’s readily available at every kirana store, inexpensive, vegetarian, simple to cook and consumed by people of all age groups and from all walks of life.
In our country, a bland moong dal soup is a baby’s first food since it is easy to digest and wholesome. Our festivals like Makar Sankranti and Pongal revolve around rice and dals. In Bengal, a whole range of pithe is made using moong dal with other ingredients as a revered winter ritual. For an everyday meal, it is one of the most adaptable food items on our kitchen shelves. The final sizzle of the hot desi ghee tadka with its own spices crackling in the skillet is the ultimate dance on this legume-based vegetarian stew. These vary and are characteristic of different regions. While in South India they use copious amounts of curry leaves and mustard seeds, the Northern states like their tadka to make use of coriander seeds, cumin seeds, garam masala, onion, ginger and garlic. Kerala with its plentitude of coconut trees uses coconut milk often in dals.
There are memories linked to dals. Like most kids, in my growing up years, I wasn’t fond of dals except for one. Since my maternal family is from Kanpur, the dal cooked in our home had the U.P. touch. My favourite was the Khatti-Meethi Arhar ki Dal to which Mom added tamarind juice or amchoor and a dash of sugar to give it a tangy taste. The elixir of a simple tempering or chaunk of desi ghee with jeera, red chilli powder and turmeric powder would complete the masterpiece. Accompanied by steaming hot rice and mango pickle it was THE ULTIMATE. Since dal was an essential part of our food, she tried different types with different tadkas. Sometimes, she would mix two or more dals together in varying proportions to add variety and a change of flavours. Dad would tease Ma and lovingly call her “Jodha Bai.” There was a reason to it. The Panchratna dal or Panchmel which we all eat was incidentally introduced by Jodha Bai to Akbar when she married the Emperor. Till then the Moghul kitchens, mainly cooked non-vegetarian dishes till the Queen introduced the Panchmel or the mix of five dals – moong, masoor, urad, chana and toor dal and it became a favourite of the Emperor as well. From the time I remember seeing Ma to now when I am married, the meal taken after breaking the Karwachauth fast has to include Moong Sabut Dal or Karwachauth wali dal as we informally call it.
The dhabas that dot the highways are havens for a traveller. While earlier they were the stopovers for the truck drivers mainly, their combination of heartwarming hospitality, rugged charm and lucid style of cooking invites others. Today people travel not to another city, but just for dhaba food.The swirl of cream on Dal Makhani, the Dhabe Wali Dal and the fluffy Tandoori Rotis and ghee soaked paranthas rake up visuals of these “masterpieces of flavours.” While Dal Makhani has entered kitchens everywhere since the time Kundan Lal Gujral of Moti Mahal invented this well favoured Dal, the Dhabe wali Dal hasn’t gained that much popularity. Today, as we join the Culinary Consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal in the Dal Divas, I share the recipe of the Urad Dal made the Dhaba style.