In the pantheon of comfort food in India, rice and dal must be a near-universal favourite. Pulses are an affordable, easily accessible sources of nutrients eaten across social classes. While different regions are known to be partial to certain types of pulses and ways of consuming them, the sheer mind-boggling range of recipes these grains yield themselves to is evident from a recent book by food historian Salma Husain, co-written with Vijay Thukral, who is executive chef at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

In Pull Of Pulses: Full Of Beans (Niyogi Books, 750), the authors transport us into a wonderland of dal. Sifting through historical, mythological, and apocryphal evidences, they bring to us wondrous trivia—such as a recipe from Apicius Cookery And Dining In Imperial Rome, the first known cookbook compiled in first century AD, for lentils with coriander. Closer home, there are many recipes peculiar to specific states: khilwan dal, for instance, is a traditional Kashmiri Pandit speciality made with dry-skinned white lentil with no garlic and onion but asafoetida for tempering.

“Pulses have versatile flavours and lend themselves to a variety of dishes, vegetarian or otherwise," says Husain on the phone. Arranged into sections, the book offers recipes for soups, salads, pulao, rice, even desserts using dal. We encounter familiar incarnations, such as dal-baati-churma from Rajasthan, as well as less- known ones, like moong dal kadhi, a recipe from Multan based on green lentils, which comes into the book courtesy Gautam Anand, who was formerly with the ITC group of hotels.

Husain, who is from Mumbai but married into a family in Uttar Pradesh, wasn’t a fan of dal to start with. Over the years, she picked up the nuances of tempering that go with each recipe, including the ones that run through the vast gamut of cuisines from the south of India. Her introduction, preceded by a foreword by the late journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, gives an overview of the health benefits of a variety of dals, often drawing on ancient texts. Surapala’s Vrikshayurveda, for instance, prescribes horse gram for persons suffering from jaundice or water retention. Long before khichdi became a political metaphor for national integration, the Ain-i-Akbari, a 16th century account of the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar by Abul Fazl, mentions seven variations of it.

With recipes like lentil and spinach lasagna, Italian sausages with lentils, and adasi (lentils made in Persian style with golpar seeds), the book crosses borders and boundaries. The next time you want to spice up your regular dal into something rich and strange, there are inspirations enough across these pages.

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