Confessions of a dal-aholic

Yellow ‘dal’ is not just another dish, it is the equivalent of a hug in a bowl


Cooked in a bewildering variety of ways and with different seasonings, yellow ‘dal’ is clearly India’s go-to comfort food. Photo: iStockphoto
Cooked in a bewildering variety of ways and with different seasonings, yellow ‘dal’ is clearly India’s go-to comfort food. Photo: iStockphoto

As a family, we are hideously greedy and consider it absolutely sacrilegious to waste even a single eating opportunity. So when we travel, destinations are carefully chosen and evaluated in large part on the basis of the general yumminess and variety of food on offer. We have systematically eaten our way through many places and many things (living and non-living), always arriving back home in an absurdly happy coma, fat and broke.

However, no matter what we have consumed on our if-I-can-see-it, I-can-eat-it travels, the first meal that we settle down to at home is always one that includes yellow dal and chawal. To appetites that may still be craving a taste of wherever we’ve just been and whatever we have just eaten, it’s a gentle signal to say, the holiday’s over, welcome home. Because yellow dal is the taste of home; everyone’s home. It’s simple, it’s yummy, it’s familiar, it’s comforting, it’s beloved. It is the culinary equivalent of a hug from your squishiest kindest aunt – it’s benediction in a bowl.

Even the very act of calling it yellow dal (or peeli dal if you’re a purist) is an act of deliberate infantilisation; no such beast exists. The scientific classification of dal into the three genetically independent kingdoms of yellow dal, black dal and all other dals is something that happens in early childhood and then persists through life. And no matter how many degrees in the culinary arts or in botany we end up with, the fact that dals are classified by the colour they end up as on the table, is something we take as one of the central tenets of Indian food.

Unlike black dal (which comprises equal parts of black unhusked urad dal, full fat cream and stir-for-hours-on-a-simmering-flame mythology,) yellow dal is a famously slippery, shape shifting beast. It can be used to refer to any number of dals (some a combination of two or more) with any number of ways of preparation. It can be eaten simply cooked with salt and a few spices and made yummier just by the addition of a tablespoon of ghee or it can be made grander and fiercer, tempered with permutations and combinations of any number of things. It can mean arhar dal or toor dal – the split pigeon pea – the dal that forms the base of most sambars in the south and is much beloved everywhere else. It can also be used to refer to moong dal with no outer husk, known for its easy digestibility and its creamy texture. Both arhar and moong are yellow to begin with and cooking them with turmeric just reinforces their blonde-ness.

Just to make things interesting though is the last creature in the stable of yellow dalslal masoor (red lentils). Privately I always refer to it as the Kashmiri shawl sellers dal, because while it’s called lal, it’s actually pale orange/pink in colour and when it’s cooked, it miraculously transforms to yellow. (Which is a pretty good approximation of my experience with ordering shawls: the colour it’s called on the shade card, the colour I know it to actually be and the final colour I am presented with bear only faint genetic links to each other.)

So that then is your basic holy trinity – arhar, moong and lal masoor – cooked separately or in some combination and interchangeably known as yellow dal. Cooked in a bewildering variety of ways and with different seasonings, yellow dal is clearly India’s go-to comfort food. (There are some who claim chana dal is also a yellow dal and while they might be technically correct as far as colour is concerned, they are doubtless the same people who claim that Elvis Presley is alive and was seen in a shack in North Goa and therefore should not be considered reliable providers of information on either dal classification or long dead rock star whereabouts.)

Because while it’s hard to say what exactly yellow dal is or isn’t, the legal definition for porn could easily be extended to cover it as well – you know what it is when you see it.

It’s as fragrant and as simple as you want it to be and as complex and layered as you can make it. It can be watery and thin or robust and hearty. It can be cooked till the grains all break down and it becomes mooshy or it can be cooked till the lentils are perfectly done, but the grains still separate from each other. It’s equally marvelous soaked into rice or mopped up with rotis. It encompasses tastes that babies can appreciate and digest to ones that would delight even the most jaded of adult palates. It can be eaten simply cooked or tempered with one or more of the following: ghee, cumin, heeng, garlic, red chillies, onions, tomatoes, green chillies, ginger, kari patta, mustard seeds, and garam masala. It can be seasoned with just salt or salt and a bit of sugar, it can be sprinkled with green coriander, it can be made sour with the addition of lemon, amchur (dry mango powder) and tamarind. Or not.

To settle upon a recipe, one recipe for the definitive yellow dal, is clearly impossible. Especially for me, incredibly greedy and a self confessed yellow dal-aholic. I love all of these – a simple masoor with a tadka of just burnt garlic, arhar with zeera and heeng, moong with tiny onions browned in ghee, the Hyderabadi khatti dal and the arhar with spinach boiled in.

But in my world, this is the one. The yellow dal that I cannot forsake. It’s what I crave when I’m homesick for something I can’t define and what makes me feel like I’m back home, no matter where I am. It’s arhar cooked with some heeng and turmeric and tempered simply in ghee and the dried garlic chives called jhamboo that grow wild in the pahaad. It’s the one yellow dal I will never outgrow, the one I love above all else and will continue to love till death do us part.

That’s my one. What’s yours?

Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.

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